Farmer Carl Lautenschlager wrestles an 80-pound calf into the back of his pickup and heads to the house.
This little fella isn’t doing well. It’s his second trip to the heat lamp and makeshift pen in the garage.
Lautenschlager mixes a concoction of electrolytes and glucose - a bovine version of Gatorade. The calf opens wide, ready for another batch of the heated liquid.
Welcome to the 1995 calving season on the Palouse, where a biting cold snap earlier this week complicated a beef farmer’s dream, a mild winter.
“It’s another obstacle to overcome in getting these calves past the first few days of life,” says Randy Baldree, area livestock agent for the Washington State University Cooperative Extension.
In addition to the weather, cattlemen also have to cope with the usual diseases and the ever-present coyotes, which consider baby beef a delicacy - fast-food they don’t have to scavenge for in bad weather.
Lautenschlager, a 29-year-old, third-generation farmer on 2,000 acres off a road that bears his last name, is faring well but must stay alert.
The wind-whipped cold is in its fifth day. Although warmer than prior days, the wind chill is around zero.
In this weather, a calf can freeze to death within a couple of hours if the mother hasn’t bedded down in a wind-protected draw.
“When it’s 40 degrees, it’s pretty easy,” says LaCrosse rancher Greg Schlomer, a veterinarian whose practice revolves around his 700 head of cattle.
Schlomer’s calving season just started. He had six healthy calves by Friday.
Lautenschlager and his partner-brother Scott have lost three calves from birth complications, but none from the weather since their first calf was born Jan. 4.
“Knock on wood,” Carl says, banging the kitchen table.
In a 400-acre, fenced-off pasture nearby, 90 healthy babies, mostly mixes of Red Angus and Limousin, are learning to walk and nurse.
Watching a calf stand and take its first steps is like observing a human take his first ride on a unicycle or pair of stilts.
Thirteen bulls graze in a separate pasture.
“They had the easy job,” Lautenschlager quips.
The Lautenschlager spread is five miles of Palouse River frontage rimmed by high canyon walls, a postcard among farms.
Across Cutler-Lautenschlager Road from the bulls, 145 cows are two-thirds of the way through calving season.
“When they start coming out left and right, it’s hard to keep track,” says Carl’s wife, Jodi.
Thirty-five newborns will be kept for breeding purposes. The rest will go to auction in Spokane this fall en route to Midwest feed lots.
By then, they’ll weigh 600 pounds and will be further fattened with grain in the Midwest. They’ll taste good on hamburger buns late this year or early next.
“They’ll be Whoppers and Big Macs,” Lautenschlager says.
An animal lover, he learned long ago from his grandfather and nowdeceased father not to get too attached. Cattle are the family’s second crop, after wheat.
But Lautenschlager has a heart the size of his ranch.
In 1989, a blizzard struck Feb. 1 and gave new meaning to cold, Carl says.
The Lautenschlager family drove the fields all night looking for newborns, which could have frozen to death in minutes. Calves were strewn about the warm house.
“We had calves everywhere - in the basement, garage and shower stalls,” Carl says.
One calf, although protected in the barn, nearly froze during the 45 minutes it took the Lautenschlager crew to eat dinner.
Carl squirted warm water on it and revived it.
Some time later, Lautenschlager visited the Spokane stockyards. A steer wandered over to be petted. It bore the same numbered ear tag of that nearly frozen barn calf.
“He definitely recognized me,” Carl says, remarking that his brother, Scott, “thinks they’re the dumbest animals in the world.”
When a cow loses a calf, farmers must be creative in pairing up a new baby with the mother.
Sometimes calving season produces a few twins, or farmers buy outside calves to integrate with calfless mothers.
Carl recently drove to Spokane and bought a newborn to pair with a baby-less mother. He skinned the dead calf and draped its hide over the Spokane newborn.
Cows react to smell and the sound of bawling.
“The mama was a little bit skeptical at first,” he says. “But now you couldn’t take that calf away.”
On Wednesday, Lautenschlager bounded over rutted hills in his four-wheel-drive pickup and checked on his herd of cattle. Three newborns made appearances within two hours.
They were all healthy.
Then Carl spotted the frail little fella near the feed trough.
The calf was still hanging on in the garage Friday, but “he’s still not perky,” Carl says.
Calving is a tough way to make a living, Carl says, but it’s his only way.
“If I couldn’t do this, I’d have to find something else,” he says. “I don’t know what that would be.”