Beef cattle and the dairy industry alike are two of the leading agricultural pursuits in the American South, and cattle have played a pivotal role in the settling of many areas of the South. In Florida, for example, it was cattle ranching that opened up the lands south of Orlando long before tourism or anything else. Cattle, and their milk, bring high prices for an agricultural product, and while cattle need a fair amount of land to graze and the acreage required for large herds can be vast, it is possible to keep a few head of cattle on a small and humble farm, and this was done many places in the South by those with limited means. Even today, many who have other primary occupations in rural areas—teachers, contractors, police officers—may keep a few cows for fun and profit.
While some people buy feeder calves (young steers) in the fall and carry them through the winter to sell, many others keep cows and have them calve in the winter, selling the calves to those who will take them further in their journey as beef cattle. The young calves can bring serious money, but the care they require from birth onward is challenging and the prospect of losing a few calves to disease, perils of birth, or bad weather is very real. Baby calves require not only accurate care and husbandry but time-consuming efforts to ensure their stake in life.
Baby calves normally begin to appear between late January and March in many parts of the South, especially in more northern states such as Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina, where the cold and weather can be severe. In Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, calving takes place earlier, sometimes in December and certainly in January. Even in these warmer climates, below-freezing nights can and do occur, and the process of calving can be harrowing. No one knows when the calf will make its arrival, and of course the mother cow does her best to give birth to it in a remote and hidden area of pasture and then will hide the newborn calf in tall grass to protect it from predators. Her best intentions and instincts, though, may be in vain: if the farmer doesn’t find the calf in short time, its chance at life may be low, especially if it has any injuries or illnesses in need of attention.
If the weather is cold, the calf may be taken to a barn or even inside the farmhouse to be warmed, but this also risks that the mother won’t accept the calf when it is returned to her. However, in some cases, the mother won’t accept her calf anyway, and when there are twins, often one will be accepted and one rejected. The bathtub for many farmers is where a calf will end up inside the house, if no other provision is made for sickly or infirm baby calves in a barn or elsewhere. In any case, the immediate concern is that the calf is made viable and has a decent start in life. Of a herd of around forty calving cows, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see ten calves in need of extra attention and possibly, despite that attention, still see a loss of two or three calves.
While modern science and veterinary practices have improved how calves are taken care of and their luck in life, many of the old ways of calving and calf-rearing still remain as traditions—not only because they’re cherished, but more so because they’ve proven effective for generations. Keeping the calf “on the cow” is ideal, but not always possible in beef production. The cow may even attempt to kill her own calf in some rare instances, and the calf’s welfare is the foremost concern, even if it means feeding the calf by bottle, normally on a commercial milk substitute that is effective yet costly. In dairy operations, the calves are removed from their mother cows on purpose and fed in this same manner, as the cows need to be returned to milking as soon as possible.
Another key difference in dairy is that while in beef ranching bull calves are most-prized for steers, which will weigh more and be sold for beef, in dairy obviously bull calves are something of a problem instead. The farm will not need many, if any, new bulls to add to its herd, and if it does, will probably buy a young bull at the stock sale over raising one from a calf. So signs proclaiming “bull calves now for sale” are not uncommon in dairy areas such as Lafayette or Suwannee counties of Florida, during the latter part of calving season.
Large dairy operations may even have huge barns dedicated to the housing of all the calves being raised, while others house their calves in “calf huts,” pre-fab shelters large enough to contain a single small calf and thus keeping the calves isolated from one and another if the spread of pathogenic disease is a concern. Like steers and cows, calves are given a tag with a number to identify them; the older animals wear the tag in an ear, but sometimes when the number is assigned to a very young calf, it is instead placed around the calf’s neck on a nylon rope. For some reason, bright royal blue is the common color for these calf necklaces.
Hazel Shrader, one of my cousins who grew up on a family farm through the Great Depression and raised cows and calves during much of her long career as a schoolteacher, recollects that baby calves “couldn’t be trusted”—not that they’d plot some sort of bovine coup, but that often they would find a way to become injured, entangled in something, or escape their pens. As a single woman with a teacher’s job during the day, she feared what could happen to her livestock while she was away, knowing she would have limited ability to locate and check on all of them once she got home, especially in the winter when night and darkness come early.
“They could crawl out, right under a fence!” Hazel told me, “Like a dog, they can get down on their bellies and just crawl under. And if calves got out of a field, you know they could be in the road, in the neighbor’s, anywhere.”
Neighbors however did look out for each other. You would know more or less if your neighbor had cows that were calving, which ones had a calf already, which were about due, which looked like they might have trouble. Everyone had some stake in cattle farming in places like the Monroe and Greenbrier counties of West Virginia or Lafayette or Suwannee counties of Florida. A calf lost and in a hayfield, barren to the winter’s cold, or even in a local cemetery high on the hill wasn’t fully uncommon. While small communities with a “simple” way of life, running an operation as big as 100–300 cows and their calves was not only hard work but took a business acumen and sense of organization akin to that necessary to running a hospital or airport.
In Florida, winter can come in a strange way, having a sunny, clear day that’s really not too chilly at all but with evenings that see the mercury quickly drop into the below-freezing range. For baby calves born into this situation, their first freezing night can be brutal. Farmers work to bring the calves in or at least keep an eye on them, even in temps which would not be of much concern in West Virginia or other more northernly states. The broad, open expanses of farmlands near Live Oak, Florida, are split between crop fields and pasture land for cattle. Forests are sparse and the openness of the lay of the land does little to encourage heat to stay close to the ground when the skies are clear, and this environment is less than welcoming for young animals.
The same is true south of Orlando, which is major cattle country in Florida. Crops, especially citrus, also require comprehensive tending in such situations. so farmers are busy on very cold nights, seeing about groves, looking in on animals. As you drive through rural Florida on such cold nights, despite Florida’s reputation for sun and warmth, it does seem like winter can be a harsh and difficult time, one where most everyone wants to be indoors around a fireplace or watching a basketball game on television. Yet farmers will have to be out, ensuring the best future for their livestock and crops.
Calves were throughout history—especially after the Civil War—a crucial source of income for rural families throughout much of the South and today remain an important part of the rural economy. They’re adorable, but often tricky to get started. They demand time in a way that grown cows or steers simply do not, but the financial and emotional return on that investment of time can be great. Most of all, they’re a central part of the rural landscape, and you’ll often see baby calves in the shadow of their mothers’ if you look while driving through the countryside come January or February.
SEE MORE “CALVING IN THE SOUTH” PHOTOS HERE