It begins in a pasture, just as the sun rises on a February morning.
This is where steaks are born.
Brandon Siemens found the black heifer lying in blanket of green rye near her mother. He gave it a tag number – 802 – and rubbed its sides, coaxing the newborn onto its wobbly legs.
“She must have had her this morning,” Siemens said as he got back into his pickup.
It was the first calf after a three-day lull. So far, he said, 45 had been born this calving season, and he just had 25 pregnant cows left.
“I’ll have a few that will stretch it out until about April,” said Siemens.
Grilling season may be just around the corner, but first, across the state, calving season occurs. It’s the first stage of beef production, involving roughly 26,000 Kansas ranches, according to the latest Census Of Agriculture.
And it is a hectic season. For some, it means getting up in the middle of the night to check their herd. And, when the winter is frigid, ranchers are breaking ice on water tanks and warming up calves in their homes or pickups, along with creating windbreaks for the expecting mothers.
Thankfully, it’s been a mild winter for calving.
It’s always nice when the rush of the season is done and another successful calving season is in the books, said Siemens, but added that the annual tradition is one of his favorite highlights of farming and ranching.
“It’s new life coming on, another calf crop,” he said. “I look forward to the first calf hitting the ground.”
‘Tis the season
At 8 a.m., Siemens makes a pass through his spring calving location, feeding cake – or cattle protein cubes to the cows and their calves.
In the evening, he rolls out a mixture of alfalfa, brome, prairie hay and sudan grass to supplement them with good nutrition.
The animals’ needs come first, said his wife, Amy, who helps on the farm, as well as travels to Salina a few nights a week to work as a nurse at the city’s surgical center.
“They eat before we do,” she said, adding it doesn’t matter if it is Christmas day.
It’s his responsibility to make sure they come into the world safe and healthy. It pains him when he loses one.
This year he lost three – a set of twin calves were born breach. Another calf was premature.
Siemens treats a few for sickness. Calves can get a flu bug just like humans, sometimes caused by Kansas’ up and down temperatures.
There are hard times and there are happier ones. Prices fluctuate and are down from a year ago. But his devotion to farming and ranching runs four-generations deep.
It’s a lifestyle. It’s work ethic. It’s about faith, family and community.
And it is a close knit community, Siemens added.
“Neighbors help neighbors,” he said, noting sometimes he gets a call from nearby rancher Andrea Boman, who needs help pulling a calf or something else.
A way of life
Not far from Burrton, Andrea and her husband, Brian, have 40-some cows calving this winter.
She grew up helping her family on their cow/calf operation near Halstead, which included bottle feeding calves and helping parents feed. It was always a dream of hers to have her own operation someday, which came to fruition about a decade ago.
Andrea and Brian have been working to build up their own herd – big enough that someday Brian, who co-owns Boman Electric, could farm and ranch full time.
For now, Andrea spends her days largely running the cow/calf operation. Brian helps feed in the mornings and on weekends, but, most days, he is busy at the business.
With their second grader, Hadley, in school, Andrea and 3-year-old daughter Harper drive a few miles to their spring calving headquarters just west of Burrton a few times a day. She refills water tanks and checks for newborns. At feeding time in the morning and afternoon, she unrolls a large round bale of hay off the flat-bed pickup.
The cattle are branded the old way – using horses and hot irons – in April. In May, they move them to pasture and sell the calves, now around nine or 10 months old, in November.
She couldn’t imagine doing anything else, she said.
“People either have a passion for it or they don’t,” she said, adding, “I couldn’t imagine not having cows.”
Lending a hand
A love of the business is necessary, after all, for an occupation that, at least this time of year, doesn’t acknowledge a snow day, a government holiday or a weekend off.
This year, the Bomans don’t have any heifers – or first-time mothers – to calve, which sometimes requires assistance in calving. That makes it easier, Andrea said. But if she needs a neighbor to help her, she has several who will come at moment’s notice.
It’s just what folks in rural America do: When a neighbor is in need, you lend a hand.
The Bomans’ two daughters both have cystic fibrosis and 7-year-old Hadley has already spent time in the hospital this year.
Andrea said she has a network for ranch friends, including the Siemens, who would stop what they are doing to help.
That’s the blessings of rural Kansas, where neighbors – albeit several miles away – share the same sunrise and sunset, the same central Kansas view and the same way of life.
“You can count on friends and neighbors,” said Andrea. “We have a group of people around here that I can call any time and get help when I need it.”
Moreover, said, Siemens, the Bomans have helped he and Amy many a time move cattle on horseback.
“I always had it in my head from really young on that this is what I wanted to do,” said Siemens of farming and ranching.
It’s a good way to raise a family, said his wife, Amy. The couple is teaching their daughter, Kinley, that same farm and ranch work ethic that her father grew up with, along with money management.
Kinley has her own small herd, which is distinguishable by a purple ear tag. Right now, she has three cow/calf pairs and plans to show two steers and two replacement heifers in the Reno County 4-H Fair in July.
“I just enjoy calving in general,” she said. “I have had my own – grew up showing them – since second and third grade.”
Someday, she said, she wants to be a veterinarian and the money from her herd will help with college. For now, she is at Prairie Hills Middle School. She comes home to do chores, which include feeding her horse and working with her 4-H cattle.
As for 802 – the heifer calf born at the tail-end of winter – she will eventually be weaned and moved to green pastures. Siemens might keep her back as a replacement heifer in his herd – where she would become the mother of future cattle in the production cycle. Or, he might sell her as a feeder animal in December, where she would be fed out and funneled through the production cycle.
“It’s rewarding to to see the next calf crop coming on – not just to feed this country but to feed the world,” he said.