RURAL WOOD LAKE - Spring brings new life on a farm or ranch, but it's a lot of hard work.
Nick Kissner of rural Wood Lake doesn't get to leave home much these days because his cows are dropping calves, but it's the life he chose about 30 years ago and he wouldn't have it any other way.
"You always look forward to every spring with anticipation, but you wonder what it's going to bring," he said.
That's because when you run a cow/calf operation, "all year, you gear your operation toward the spring calving season," he said. "A lot of things come into play in regards to what kind of calf crop you'll get the following year."
Ranchers have to think about the food they feed the animals, plan which cows to breed with which bulls and keep checking on the health and fertility of all the animals, Kissner said.
"We very much enjoy the business that we're in," he said. "Cow/calf people are kind of unique in the livestock business because they have one animal that affords them one chance per year to produce a profit. We're dealing with smaller numbers. You become involved with each individual animal because you've hand-picked those animals."
He knows the business is closely scrutinized.
"We're very concerned about people's interpretation on how we care for our animals," he said. "If we didn't give the utmost care to our animals, they would not perform like we need them to."
Kissner runs about 120 cows and "hopefully, we can get a calf out of every cow," he said.
Calving season rolls around about mid-March, and the next 60 days are crucial.
"The first 30 days are pretty intense. That's when most of the calves are born," Kissner said.
"Yesterday was a very busy day," he said. "Normally, it's three calves a day; yesterday, we had 12 in 24 hours. I think that's the most I've had."
Kissner said he likes to use a "hands-off approach with the cattle. Let them do their thing," but sometimes that's not possible.
"If it's storming or cold, the need is greater, so you have to be there more frequently," said Kissner, adding some nights you don't get much sleep. "You have calving difficulties that can rise in any kind of weather. Difficult births, you have to recognize problems. Calf coming backwards, that's a difficult birth."
A good share of his herd are experienced mothers, but about 10 percent each year are first-timers, he said. "I spend more time supervising the first-time heifers than the cows."
Kissner said one first-time mother had a calf that was born with a very thick birth sack and he "had to take that off his head. Some of these first-time mamas need help. You never know if they'll figure it out. It's always a harder birth process, more strenuous for heifers. Occasionally, they need help to extract the calf."
He said some cows are very good mothers and do everything they can for their babies.
One of his cows had a calf on a day with the wind blowing 25 miles per hour out of the northwest. "She was laying as close as she could," Kissner said. "The calf was laying on the east side of her so it would get sunlight and warmth."
Then there are the mothers where you wonder if they know what they're doing at all. Kissner said some will have their calves in the worst holes that can be found "and you have to dry off and warm up the calf."
Not that the cows necessarily appreciate the interference. Some attack anything that gets near their calf.
"You're risking your own health," Kissner admitted. "I got trampled and stomped on and beat up as bad as I've ever had last year by a cow."
He doesn't have the luxury of waiting for the mother to trust him.
"It's that first 12 hours that's pretty critical," he said. "They have to get up and nurse. They have to have colostrum (milk), that's when they get antibodies to fight off diseases."
So far he hasn't lost any calves this season. One reason might be that he improved his facilities after a 10 percent death loss last year. "Weather was too cold and long," he said.
For as long as he's been doing this, there's a sense of wonder in Kissner's voice when he talks about his cows.
"Beef cattle are so resilient, they're tough," he said. They can survive weather and cold. It just amazes me.
"If we didn't like spending the time, we wouldn't be in this business," Kissner added. "We like our livestock."