Calving Season: Coming of Age in Montana

Posted by PollyAnna Snyder on Thursday, April 25th, 2019 at 10:41am

A teenager helps her family save newborn calves during a snowy spring.

Montana’s harsh winter persists into April. That’s bleak by most metrics, but especially so if you’re a cattle rancher — the snows continue straight into calving season. When I spent a winter there to make this short film, I was astonished by the conditions: Pregnant cows would wander off alone to give birth and drop their babies into freezing ice, and calves would shiver as they struggled to survive their first night. To save the newest members of their herd, ranching families work through the snowy nights in rotating shifts, searching for newborn calves with their flashlights and pulling them into the warming shed.

I met this ranching family after visiting the nearby town of Marmarth, N.D., a few miles east of the Montana border. It was a strange, nearly forgotten little town of a hundred residents that had been a thriving community before the railroad was rerouted, and now it represented the cycle of boom and bust that has come to characterize so many towns in that area. The family who rented me my room owned a cattle ranch and were preparing for calving season. It was not long before I met their seven children, grandparents and great-grandparents. We shared Christmas dinner. I was adopted.

Seeing what goes into raising animals for consumption was an eye-opening experience. What struck me most was the intimacy and comfortable relationship each child had with the life and death of the animals. Their jobs on the farm were not just excuses to teach responsibility; they were critical to the family’s livelihood. I could not help comparing how drastically different their childhoods were from mine growing up in the suburbs of San Francisco.

Like the children in this film, most cattle ranchers are born into the job. It is hard and often thankless work that can stretch for months with no days off, and everything comes down to a successful calving season. All so we can eat.

I hope this small story reminds us of a bigger perspective — that though life is hard, it is still filled with compassion and beauty as the cycles of birth and death go on.

By Nathan Reich
Mr. Reich is a documentary filmmaker.

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