Needing extra space each year for calving season, Proffit Ranch sets up camp far from home in Wyoming's spectacular high country.
By Kim Proffit, Evanston, Wyoming
Cow camp is what we call our unique version of calving season on our family ranch near Evanston in Wyoming’s southwest corner.
We’re a small operation as ranches go, running only around 350 head of mother cows along the Bear River in a valley bordered on the west by a little bench sporting grass and sagebrush. A larger, steeper ridge of red and white clay borders the valley to the east. To the south, the Uinta Mountains provide a beautiful backdrop to everything we do here.
We feel truly blessed to have this little place right on the river. Cattle do well in this high mountain valley with its fertile grass meadows and top-quality hay. We often refer to our home as the Garden of Eden. To us, it feels holy.
While it’s a great place to raise cattle, it is not the best place for cows to calve. Winters are long and harsh, and spring often doesn’t offer much improvement. The Wyoming wind at our altitude has a bite that makes keeping baby calves alive a monumental challenge.
To make matters even more difficult, our actual deeded acreage is so small that my mom calls it “ranching without a ranch.” So we look for land to lease around calving time that might be a little more temperate, dry and green.
We’ve hauled our herd of gypsy cattle several hundred miles to Tremonton, Antelope Island, Grantsville, Garrison, Skull Valley, Montello, Ely, Manila, Granger and Bridger Valley. We surely have the best-traveled cows around, and they’ve become pretty savvy. They’re almost trained to get on and off trucks—almost.
And of course, when the cows travel, we travel. My dad, Don Proffit, takes a camper, a few horses and the saddle he’s working on at the moment. Now that my mom, Claudia, has retired, she goes along, and they set up camp with the cows.
Using whatever he can find around the place we’re leasing, Dad makes it work. He repairs old outhouses, fixes up abandoned corrals and sheds, and looks for the best place out of the wind to park the camper that will be our home for the next three to four months.
This year we’re in Granger, about 80 miles northeast of the home ranch. We’ve had some laughs imagining “It’s Cow Camp 2013—Granger Edition!” on a poster or a T-shirt, like some big reality TV show. It is big, and there’s a lot of drama—but it’s real drama, not the fabricated TV kind. We’re dealing with the cycle of life under intimate and usually raw conditions. Working with animals is never easy, and the very nature of cow camp means fighting for the survival of every single calf against the wind, cold, mud, predators and disease.
Then there are the crazy, nearly unbelievable tangles that cows can get into, like the time a calf fell down the steep clay bank into the freezing Hams Fork River. Mom spotted it just at dusk, and she and Dad slogged around in the water for an hour trying to lift the sodden calf out. When we were out by Rock Springs, several cows mired down in the mud and we had to pull them out with ropes. Last spring a cow got mastitis so bad that all of her hair fell off; we called her the elephant cow. Another time a calf got a bucket stuck on his head. And we had a cow that somehow got all four legs stuck in a cattle guard.
There are so many moments when you have to dig deep, push through the fatigue and find a way to get the job done. But when you do, there’s a feeling of joy and accomplishment you can’t get anywhere else. I look back at the odd, unique, funny, incredible adventures we’ve had and think: Wow, who gets to experience these kinds of things? I do!
It’s interesting to distill life down to a very focused and seemingly simple job with very little distraction. There’s no television—or even phone reception, sometimes—but that really doesn’t matter. The whole purpose of our being here is to help cows put healthy calves on the ground.
To do that, we keep the 30 to 50 first-calf heifers as close as possible in smaller pastures so we can monitor them more closely. We gather them nightly and check them frequently day and night. The older cows live in bigger areas where they can spread out and calve where they feel most comfortable.
The larger cow herd gets checked two or three times a day, if you count feeding as one of the checks. Because they’re spread out for several miles across rough terrain, we check them on horseback. Using horses to work cattle is a thrill that’s hard to explain to someone who’s never experienced it. But believe me, it can get hold of your soul.
All the calves are tagged. Every cow has a number, and the calf’s number is paired with hers in our records. We try to tag them while they’re tiny, because they can run like rabbits after they’re just a few days old.
Dad has all the numbers in a little red book that he keeps in his breast pocket. When we’re mothering up cows and calves for shipping, the book becomes invaluable. Even with all the technological advances we use, Dad’s little book and a pen are still the main record-keeping tools—although one grandson keeps trying to get him to switch to an iPad.
Dad has been doing this for decades. Still going strong at 73, he has developed skills that make him a pretty good “midwife to cows,” as he calls it. Watching him work with calves that can’t figure out where to get their first meal, or warm up “Popsicles”—his name for chilled calves—is amazing and touching. He remains calm with cows having a hard time with too-big calves, and he’s patient with ornery cows that want to fight him. He often spends hours in the middle of the night helping a new pair get going.
Despite our best efforts, though, calves die and mothers abandon or lose track of their babies. Some cows don’t produce enough milk to feed a calf, so the calf will be removed to save its life. Although bottle-feeding is sometimes an important temporary substitute, a cow does a much better job of raising a calf than we do, so getting a cow to take a calf that isn’t hers is pretty important. Dad has a whole bag of tricks to get a cow to adopt a calf. It’s heartwarming to watch it work, especially after so much effort has been put into the matchmaking.
Even when births don’t require much effort on our part, they seem miraculous and beautiful. Obviously, we need calves to survive for the ranch to keep going, but there’s far more to cow camp than the bottom line. In fact, if you looked at the cost-to-benefit ratio, it would be barely worth it. For many large outfits, it isn’t, and they expect to take a sizable calf loss every year at this time.
But Dad’s painstaking attention to his cows and the comforts he sacrifices at cow camp are about love of the life and love of the animals. They’re about being part of the miracle. We are stewards of these animals. We work hard for them, and they work hard for us. This is what we do, and it’s what we will always do as long as we can, out here in God’s Country.
Photography: Jill Adams