Montana State students get hands-on experience with calving

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Outdoor hospital

Montana State University students Brooke McCleary (left), Makae Nack and Caleb Bowey keep an eye on calving heifers at the MSU Bozeman Agricultural Research and Teaching Farm on March 2, 2018 in Bozeman. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

Learning by “just doing it”

Just like ranchers across Montana, Montana State University student Caleb Bowey kept a watchful eye on heifers on a late February day, waiting for one to give birth.

“Most of these are due tomorrow,” said Bowey of the dozen pregnant cattle hanging around the front of the calving barn. “But you can only guess. When it happens, it happens.”

That’s when Bowey and other MSU students jump into action, leading a heifer into the warmth of the barn, pulling a stuck calf out of the womb or helping the newborn onto its feet to nurse.

“I didn’t have a lot of experience (with calving),” said Bowey, a junior from Sheridan who is majoring in agricultural education. “But to be out here and learning, I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Bowey works on MSU’s 474-acre Bozeman Agricultural Research and Teaching Farm to earn money while studying at MSU; other students gain experience with this foundational ranch activity by enrolling in a sophomore-level course called calving management.

“We’d be calving no matter what because this is a working ranch, but it’s also an opportunity for instruction,” said Hannah DelCurto Wyffels, who teaches the calving course as an instructor in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences in MSU’s College of Agriculture. “That’s the purpose of the MSU herd,” which is owned by MSU’s Montana Agricultural Experiment Station. About 50 heifers were expected to give birth this year at MSU’s Bozeman farm.

Makae Nack, a sophomore majoring in animal science, had helped with calving on her family’s ranch near Geraldine but took the class to get more formal training. “I’ve learned some new things,” she said.

DelCurto caps the class enrollment at 15 students “so that everyone has an opportunity to handle the cattle,” she said. “We want it to be hands-on.”

Starting in January, Del-Curto’s students met at the farm each week for instruction about calving practices. During that time she also conveyed the demands of this unconventional course: rotating five-hour shifts, often at night, sometimes in subzero temperatures or snowstorms.

“Some students grew up doing this and it’s second nature to them, and others have never experienced it before,” said Tyrell McClain, MSU’s assistant livestock operations manager, who also helps instruct the students.

Some students ventured to Judith Gap to help with calving on the EL Peterson Ranch, which has partnered with the MSU class for several years. The partnership provides additional cattle for the students to handle and a different experience for those who want it, according to DelCurto.

Dana Melcher, a sophomore majoring in animal science, was part of a four-person team that pulled five calves in three days at the EL Peterson Ranch. “You try to stay as calm as possible and work with (the cattle),” she said. “There’s a lot to it.”

The Department of Animal and Range Sciences also offers a couple of internships to help with the calving of the MSU herd. Brooke McCleary, a senior majoring in animal science, interned to learn about new practices she might take back to her family’s ranch near Roundup after she graduates.

“Every operation does it a little differently,” she said, “so it’s interesting to see how it’s done here.”

Once the calving is done in March, the students in Del-Curto’s class write a paper about their experiences and share their stories with their classmates. “With calving, no two situations are exactly alike,” DelCurto said.

“It’s pretty unique that students have an opportunity to do calving just a mile from campus,” she said. “It’s such a great classroom.”

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