Falun With hands cupped around his mouth, Chuck Oleen sent a high-pitched holler across the pasture, snaring the attention of critters big and small.
Sensing the rancher was bearing treats -- wheat middling pellets or range cubes -- a small herd of cows, 2-month-old calves and a bull, came running to Oleen and his flatbed pickup truck.
The half owner of Oleen Cattle Co. -- with brother Glenn -- Chuck Oleen stopped by to check on a big chunk of his yearly income, grazing in a native grass pasture near Falun.
The calves were born in October and November. Still more are expected in February and March, the traditional early spring calving period in these parts.
The Oleens work year-round on their farm and ranch, but the next two months or so will rank among their busiest periods. They will battle extreme weather while making the environment comfortable for cows to give birth.
Every new life represents profit potential.
"If you don't have a good survival rate when you calve, you don't have a chance at having a good year," Chuck Oleen said.
The goal is keeping the mothers and babies out of the wind and dry.
"We just have to do what we can to look out for them," he said.
If you're in the cow-calf business, calving is "where it all starts," said Cade Rensink, district Extension livestock production agent, based in Minneapolis.
"This is probably the most critical time of the year for any cow-calf operation," he said."In order to make any money, you've got to have a calf on the ground."
Beyond the economics, Rensink said calving season is special.
"It's almost a spiritual deal, bringing something new into the world and knowing you're going to have a big part of its well-being," he said.
Newborn calves are tougher than you think, Oleen said, capable of handling extreme cold.
"If it's 10 degrees with no wind and there's dry grass to calve in, they might frost their ears, but they'll be all right," he said. "If they can get outta the wind, it makes a big difference."
But the Oleen brothers and others in this area are keeping a close watch on their herds these days, in case their cows go into labor.
If the weather turns "terrible bad," Chuck Oleen said, some cows may be taken to a barn to give birth.
If they find a calf laying in wet and cold conditions, "you throw him in the cab of your pickup, and take him to the house, or barn, to warm up," Chuck said. "You take him back to the pasture the next morning. If the mother has licked the calf, she will claim him. Over 90 percent of the time, they will."
The Oleens keep their mature cows separate from their first-calf heifers. All are well-fed.
Glenn Oleen watches the new mothers, and checks them more often, Chuck said.
As with any species, birthing can present challenges, Chuck said. Babies can turn in the womb. Tails and legs may not be positioned correctly. Sometimes the calf must be pulled, or taken by Caesarean section. C-sections require veterinary services, but the Oleens rarely need such a procedure.
"We believe we have the responsibility to try and take care of them," Chuck said. "We do our best."
When conditions are the worst, he said, they drive through pastures at night with a spotlight, and just in case of snow, they carry a shovel.
"I've had to scoop myself out many times," Chuck said.
It's hard work, Extension's Rensink said, "but in the grand scheme of things, that little bit of labor is well worth it. It's gotta be done."
Some may wonder why calving is planned when conditions are at their worst. It's all about timing, said Carl Garten, of Salina, the district Extension director.
"People who have a lot of farm ground to work, try to get calving done before that happens," he said.
That trend is changing.
"I'm seeing more and more in the industry moving their calving dates later, if they don't have other commitments," Garten said. "Some say to move it back to reduce the mortality rate. Cows have less problems if they're eating green grass."
Calving in January provides more days before you wean in the fall, Rensink said, and it gives the cow more time to recover.
Backing the season into April provides a "better chance at keeping calves healthy," he said, and it reduces feed costs by timing the births closer to cool season grasses emerging in the spring.
Cow-calf operations have not seen the greatest returns in the past couple of years, Garten said.
"The fat cattle market hasn't been high, which has also driven down the market for feeder cattle," he said. "But the (herd) numbers are getting low, and it's looking like the next couple years could be better."