EDINBURG, N.D. – As twilight fades to darkness, Joel Mathiason’s gentle hands lift a newborn calf to its feet and steer it into a barn stall knee-deep in straw.
A cow follows. When she enters the stall, Mathiason exits, swinging the gate closed behind the newborn and his mother.
The calf was one of seven born Wednesday, March 11 – a hectic day for Mathiason. That morning, he assisted a cow with a breech birth, along with shuttling cows and calves between pens, feeding the herd and bedding them down. It wasn’t as busy, though, as Feb. 12, when 17 calves were born.
“They come in spurts,” Mathiason said. Among this year’s births have been 10 sets of healthy twins.
“Everybody’s been good and spry,” he said.
No matter if they are twins or single births, or whether there are large or small numbers of calves born in a single day, Mathiason takes it in stride. A veteran of more than 20 calving seasons, he’s used to the drill.
“I bought my first calf when I was 12 years old,” Mathiason said.
The heifer, which he showed in county 4-H competitions became the foundation of his herd. Mathiason continued to build his herd when he was in high school, and later, college. After earning a degree in agricultural economics from North Dakota State University in 2005, he worked in agri-businesses for two years, then moved back to the farm in 2007 to raise cattle and crops full-time.
Raising cattle is a good way to diversify his farm, Mathiason said. He and his father, Gary, also grow soybeans, wheat, corn and canola on the farm a few miles northwest of the Walsh County town of Edinburg.
The farmstead where Mathiason keeps his cattle was set up to raise livestock, but many of the barns and fences were aging. He has worked during the past 13 years to upgrade them; now, during adverse weather conditions, all of the cows and calves can go inside barns spread across the farmstead.
The barn where the newborns and their mothers stay not only offers them shelter from the prairie winds, but is heated to ward off the cold temperatures common in late winter and early spring.
On a night last week, Mathiason checked to ensure the new calves and their mothers were safe and warm in the barn. He then continued the check on the rest of his herd, walking to an adjacent barn to look in on the cows with impending due dates. No new calves were on the ground and no cows were in labor, so Mathiason left the bovine maternity ward to put hay in for the bulls corralled on another part of the farm.
It's a process being duplicated and repeated this time of year throughout cattle country. Ranchers are sacrificing sleep and praying for good weather as their latest cash crop hits the ground. It's a hectic time as they hope the newborns arrive between blizzards and bouts of cold weather.
And then it repeats again next year.
Though darkness covered the farm, Mathiason’s work Wednesday night wasn’t done. For the past month and a half since calving out his herd of 193 Angus cows began, long nights are followed by even longer days.
“I check them at 10, midnight and 2 a.m.,” Mathiason said. The 35-year-old farmer doesn’t need an alarm clock to wake him. He usually stays up until the midnight barn check, and his body clock is tuned in to the 2 a.m. wake-up. Then at 6 a.m., it’s back to the barn to start all over again.
On nights when there are several calves born, sleep is pretty much nonexistent because Mathiason is hustling to tend to the newborns and their mothers.
He shrugs off his lack of shut-eye, noting that about two-thirds of the cows are done calving and that 67 left will give birth in the next few weeks. By early April, all the 2020 calving season should be wrapped up.
“When the weather’s nice and everything’s going good it’s fun; seeing them running around,” Mathiason said.