Between the COVID-19 pandemic that has curtailed social interaction and the subzero temperatures last week that discouraged me from venturing outdoors, I was feeling pretty gloomy in my personal life. Meanwhile, the weather also brought many activities to a halt, so I was short on story ideas for the Grand Forks Herald.
Fortunately, because of my love for agriculture and animals, I found a solution to get me out of the winter doldrums and make my editors happy: writing a story on a rancher calving his cows in the brutal weather.
On Tuesday, Feb. 9, I called Dahlen, N.D., Simmental rancher Terry Ellingson, who said Eric Hylden, the Herald’s photographer, and I could visit that afternoon. Bundled up in the down-filled winter coat, boots and mittens I wear for my own farm chores, I drove to Ellingson’s farm and met with Hylden and Ellingson. The three of us spent a couple of hours talking about calving and touring Ellingson’s barns and corrals. Spending the time in the bitter cold temperature and bucking the west wind as we walked among the calves and cows was the perfect medicine for my winter-weary soul.
Hearing Ellingson talk about his love for his livestock, the daily and nightly checks he makes on them during calving season and seeing those well-cared-for Simmentals not only boosted my spirits, but it also brought back memories.
As I told Ellingson, some of my best times on the farm involved taking care of cattle. I loved riding horseback and checking the cows in the summer, herding them in the fall from the farm to open fields of grain stubble where they grazed, and assisting my dad with calving in the late winter and early spring.
My dad, like Ellingson, calved when temperatures were still cold. Our farmyard turned into a muddy, sloppy mess when the ground thawed, so it was better for the calves to be born in the cold than in wet conditions, which could cause them to get sick from a variety of diseases. Also, similar to Ellingson, my dad used a series of corrals and barns in which he rotated the pregnant cows, cows that had given birth and calves during frigid temperatures.
When I was in early elementary school, I often tagged along with my dad when he was checking the calves that were inside on cold days. During high school, on nights I was up late studying, I accompanied my dad on late-night calving checks. Occasionally, I helped with a difficult birth, and other times, watched as his calloused hands gently guided a calf up to its mother’s udder to nurse. Sometimes, we both would just stand, in silence, observing the herd of cattle and calves laying on beds of straw, quietly sleeping as steam rose from their noses into the wintry air.
It’s been more than 30 years since I checked the calves and cows on frigid winter nights and hot summer days with my dad, but the memories, piqued by my trip to a ranch, are as sharp as the day they were made. I’m grateful for the trip down memory lane launched last week at Ellingson’s Simmentals near Dahlen.
It warmed my heart and lifted my spirits.
Ann Bailey is a Grand Forks Herald reporter who writes a personal column twice each month.