Jean Schwieder


No fences to check or fix doesn’t mean that winter is a time for a rancher to sit around and do nothing. Before he gets the cattle moved from summer pasture down to the valley and winter pasture, he gets the corrals scooped out of all the manure in them. That manure is spread out on the fields where potatoes or wheat/barley or hay will be raised. It is a good fertilizer! Then he does any repair work on the birthing shed, the corral fence and gates. He checks his supply of hay and straw, estimating what he has and what he will need to buy to get him through until spring.

After the cows are moved down, they are watched closely for any health problems. He will get the veterinarian out to do the bangs vaccination for heifer calves and he weighs all of the calves.

As fall moves into winter, the steers and some of the heifer calves are put in a separate area as they will be sold. The incubation boxes are checked to make sure the heat lamps are functional. Any gates are checked to make sure they are easy to open and shut and that they will stay shut when closed. These things are in preparation for the new crop of calves that will be coming.

At our ranch calving is scheduled to begin the first of February. This year it started about a week early, which isn’t unusual. We know that calving will go on for a good month, or maybe two depending on how many cows we have. Our herd has been cut down, so maybe we will get most of the calving done in a month this year.

About mid-January Boyd and Lee Gaskell, our friend who helps with the cows, will walk through the cows two or three times a day, checking to see if any of the cows are about ready to deliver. When they find one they will move her into the calving shed and watch her closely. As the days move on, more and more cows show signs of calving, so more and more walks through the herd are necessary. Once they start calving the night shifts begin.

Boyd goes out at dark and, with the dogs, moves all the cows into the corral. Then Lee and his wife Johanna take a turn around 10 p.m., walking through the resting cows, observing, moving any potential new mama’s into the shed, but trying not to disturb the herd. Boyd will go out between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., checking again. Then just as it starts to get light he and the dogs go out to open the gate, and he lets the cows out into the pasture, but the gate is then left open so the cows can move back in where the straw is spread out as bedding, and where they can access water. Feeding is done about 2:30 p.m., so the cows are checked again then as they are fed. This cycle begins again at dark.

Boyd spends quite a bit of “off time” recording in his little red book, putting tags in the calves’ ears, walking through the herd, plus some napping.

We haven’t had to have a calf in the basement yet this year, but we will if they find one that is cold and shivering and can’t get warm in the incubator. Then we warm old blankets in our dryers and wrap around them to get them warm. I know of people who have put calves in their bathtubs full of warm water. We haven’t done that yet but know it is an option if we need to use it. In other years the warm blankets have done the trick, and then we can keep the calf in the basement on a concrete floor that can be mopped with Clorox water.

So as we watch the snow storms and wind coming through this year, heavier and stronger than the past few years, my rancher is vigilant in watching the cows and their young ones. Not only are they our harvest, but they are living beings and deserve to be treated kindly and taken care of.

Yes, the winter rancher is just as busy as the summer rancher. The biggest difference is the weather and the shorter time of daylight. Boyd has warm coveralls, good boots, hat, gloves, but he still comes in cold if there is a wind. And when in Idaho is there not a wind?

With all of this, ranching is still a wonderful life and one we love and are grateful we have the opportunity to live!

Jean Schwieder is a writer who has spent her life involved in eastern Idaho agriculture. Her books, including past columns, are available by calling 208-522-8098 or by email at