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Surviving Calving Season

March 15, 2011, 10:07 PM by Erich Schaffhauser

Surviving Calving Season
TIMBER LAKE, SD - For many people, this time of year is one where we can look forward to finally seeing green grass. For ranchers, it's a time to make sure all their paychecks survive through unpredictable weather so they can turn a profit.

A bull calf less than two hours old is one of the latest additions to the Gill Red Angus Ranch near Timber Lake. And he'll soon be joined by several more additions.

"About every calving season, you see a lot of different things happen," Larry Gill said.

Having ranched for more than 40 years, Larry has seen quite a few different things. He's faced snow, rain and various diseases in his herd. Sometimes warm weather, sometimes frigid. Through it all, the goal is to keep as many calves alive as possible in order to make a profit.

So when calving season hits, it's not just work; it's a lifestyle.

"We check them about every three hours," Larry said.

That's through the middle of the night as well, especially when it's cold or storming or a young mother is having a calf for the first time.

Larry's sons work on the ranch as well, taking turns checking the cows through the night. But it's still plenty of work making sure the young ones survive. They'll make sure the calves get up and start feeding, sometimes make sure they're dry and sheltered from the elements. If they don't go through those steps, payback in the fall drops more and more for each calf that does.

With all the factors you can't control in this business, Gill says it can be stressful. But it's not one he'd trade either.

"I've been out here since 1968 so it's probably worth the hassle. My wife and I started here then and raised our family here on this place," Larry said.

And it's been growing since. Brent Gill is one of Larry's sons who's decided to stick around and raise a family of his own on the ranch. He left home for school and work but not for long.

"Experimented a little bit in the world to see what it was like and soon after I got to doing that I realized I wanted to be back on the place," Brent said.

That is one of the reasons the Gills and several other ranchers need to put in long hours during different parts of the year. The operation needs to be successful enough to support multiple families.

"The work is always there. But generating more income so everybody makes a living is quite a challenge sometimes," Larry said.

But it's another challenge the Gills call worth taking on. For Larry, it's meant he can pass on the midnight cow-checking shifts during calving season onto his sons. But that's not the biggest perk for the long-time Timber Lake rancher.

"Well of course, that's kind of everybody's dream is to have it passed on down to your sons or to you family members and it's kind of working out that way," Larry said.

Spring blizzards in recent years have been costly for many KELOLAND ranchers. But at the same time, you'll find many of them echoing the words of the Gills regardless.

"Well, I like being around family for one and I was born and raised this way," Brent said.

"Well, one thing, you're kind of your own boss. If you succeed, it's good for you and if you don't, well it's your fault," Larry said.

So they enter another season of calving on the ranch, waiting to see what kind of weather they'll be working to keep their calves alive this year, banking on more "good for yous" than faults at the end of it all.

The challenges ranchers face will vary from year to year and from ranch to ranch.

Two years ago, we did a story with a man living along the Grand River. At that time, he had to swim his horse around in a flooded pen by his barn to herd his cows to high ground so they could calf there.

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