Calving season in Big Sky Country

Hunter D’Antuono
Yellowstone Newspapers
Yellowstone Newspapers photo by Hunter D’Antuono.  Rancher Stuart Dunkel, of Wilsall, tags a newborn calf nestled in the hay on Feb. 20.
A mother cow licks her hours-old calf on Stuart Dunkel’s ranch off of Horse Creek Road south of Wilsall on Feb. 27.
A calf nurses on Stuart Dunkel’s ranch near Wilsall on Feb. 20. The faster a calf is on its feet and suckling, the greater its chances at a healthy life.

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Curled into a tight ball, wobbly legs tucked under its small body, a black calf, mere hours old, its soft hide still wet with birthing fluids, pokes its head up from a pile of straw in a muddy field in the Shields Valley.
An attentive mother reaches down to lick it clean. Perhaps not as cute as a golden retriever bouncing around on a manicured suburban lawn, but still a heart-warming sight nonetheless.
This scene will play out 500-some times on Stuart Dunkel’s ranch this year.
Dunkel, a 27-year-old rancher from a multigenerational Montana family, embraced the ranching lifestyle early in life, and hasn’t looked back.
At age 15, he borrowed money from his mother to buy 45 cows. And raising cattle is what he’s done since.
“I love it. I just have fun,” said Dunkel, wearing a characteristically large grin. “I play all day, I guess. It’s fun being your own boss.”
In Big Sky Country, Dunkel is an example of how ranching remains a cross-generational pursuit.
Dunkel is well on his way to raising a family of his own with his wife, Rebecca, in the foothills of the Crazy Mountains up Horse Creek Road.
One of the most trying times of any rancher’s year is calving season.
In the height of the season, 18-20 hour work days are not uncommon with cows birthing around the clock.
The calves are a rancher’s top priority. They are the future. Without a maximum healthy crop of calves to sell at market, land leases risk default and bills may go unpaid, putting the livelihoods of all of those on the ranch in jeopardy.
And ranchers are at the mercy of the market price of their product. Dunkel and Myrt Woosley, a rancher in Sedan, both recounted a dramatic swing two years ago, when beef prices rose to well over $2 per pound and by the next year had sunk to a $1.40.
“That check has to last an entire year,” said Woosley of money earned from cattle sales.
Her husband Lyle’s family are seventh-generation Montana ranchers, and the first to settle in Sedan, who named it after their former home in Kansas when they headed west. For four decades, Lyle and Myrt have worked cattle together with their family in the shadow of the Bridgers.
“Any time you see someone who is calving, if you are a rancher, you can tell, because they look so exhausted,” said Woosley.
Weather and disease in newborn cattle are a rancher’s greatest nemeses.
Woosley maintains a more traditional approach to calving season. Forgoing a four-wheeler or pickup truck, every hour and a half, this time of year Woosley saddles up to check the pastures for newborns.
Ranching is her family’s sole source of income, so ensuring every calf has the best shot at a healthy life is critical. The quicker a calf is on its feet and suckling after birth, the better its odds of survival.
When the wind whips and temperatures dip below zero, newborns and their mothers are ushered into their well-strawed barn for shelter.
If temperatures rise, the ground thaws, creating muddy conditions out the fields. Wet, cold ground increases instances of diseases like scours and even pneumonia in calves.
Scours is caused by any number of bacterial or viral infections and induces severe diarrhea, leading to dehydration and possibly death within several hours. In the event of a bad case of scours, the Woosley’s can readily rehydrate their calves with an IV setup in the barn.
Predation of fresh, wobbly calves also poses a threat. Just this week, Woosley said they lost two calves to what appeared to be either coyotes or wolves.
“You have to be very vigilant with predators,” said Woosley. “It’s a lot of work.”
But borne from the innumerable hours of labor comes a unique way of life, truly unfamiliar to most in the modern world. Dunkel and Woosley wouldn’t trade what they do for anything else.
“It’s a good way to grow up,” said Dunkel looking out across the valley from the seat of his four-wheeler. “It’s all I ever wanted to do.”


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