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FOOTHILLS: Calving in Alberta's ranchlands

A photo essay by Brent Calver and Jessica Dezall featured in the spring 2021 edition of Foothills Magazine.
FM-Calving 01 JD web a
A calf explores the pasture on its own while the Thomson family splits off the cow and calf pairs from those still waiting to give birth and moves them out further afield on XL Ranch near Black Diamond on April 3. While the calf was particularly comfortable around people and in no hurry, it eventually joined its mother in the other pasture.

AS WINTER THAWS to spring in the historic ranch lands of Foothills County, cattle herds are beginning to give birth.  

During calving, typically taking place in March and April, rancher John Thomson and his family keep the herd close to home.  

He and his son Chad, along with Chad’s wife Candace and son Hayes, keep an eye on the expectant mothers. Once a cow is prepared to give birth, she’ll move off on her own, often shying away from any human presence.  

“She’s up to something,” Chad said as one of his herd sequesters herself at the far end of the field.  

Sure enough, she gave birth two hours later. 

Once the legs start to show, the calf emerges in minutes, and the mother starts cleaning it off as the newborn opens its eyes.  

Should a cow run into trouble during birth, at any hour of the day, the Thomsons come to assist.  

Such occurrences always seem to happen in the middle of the night, Chad said.  

Issues that might arise are bad presentation, with the calf coming out in an irregular position. The rancher might intervene using chains, which hitch onto a calf’s legs and allows the farmer to assist, pulling as the cow pushes.  

One calf, whose mother couldn’t produce milk, was staying in a pen near the house, where the Thomsons were bottle feeding it.  

In colder years, Chad said, they watch for pneumonia or scours, a gastrointestinal illness.  

As the cows give birth, they and their calves are moved out further afield on the ranch while the still expectant mothers remain under a closer watch.  

Once the legs start to show, the calf emerges in minutes, and the mother starts cleaning it off as the newborn opens its eyes.  

Should a cow run into trouble during birth, at any hour of the day, the Thomsons come to assist.  

Such occurrences always seem to happen in the middle of the night, Chad said.  

Issues that might arise are bad presentation, with the calf coming out in an irregular position. The rancher might intervene using chains, which hitch onto a calf’s legs and allows the farmer to assist, pulling as the cow pushes.  

One calf, whose mother couldn’t produce milk, was staying in a pen near the house, where the Thomsons were bottle feeding it.  

In colder years, Chad said, they watch for pneumonia or scours, a gastrointestinal illness.  

As the cows give birth, they and their calves are moved out further afield on the ranch while the still expectant mothers remain under a closer watch.  

FM-Calving 14 BWC webJohn Thomson, owner of XL Ranch near Black Diamond, is a third-generation Alberta rancher and tends the herd with his sons Chad and Tyler, as well as Chad's wife Candace and son Hayes. John'€™s brother Gary also raises cattle. (Brent Calver Photo)
FM-Calving 06 BWC webAbove and below: Chad Thomson, along with wife Candace and son Hayes, ready their horses to split off the cow and calf pairs from those still waiting to give birth and move them out further afield on XL Ranch near Black Diamond on April 3. (Brent Calver Photo)
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FM-Calving 07 BWC webChad Thomson works to move cow and calf pairs to another field on XL Ranch near Black Diamond on April 3. The day's work is quite the chore as cows try to remain in one herd. (Brent Calver Photo)
FM-Calving 04 BWC webTwin calves and their mother enjoy lunch. (Brent Calver Photo)
FM-Calving 11 JD webA cow and calf are herded through to another pasture away from those still waiting to give birth. Once the calves have matured more, the herd will be driven out to the forestry reserve west of Turner Valley in June. (Jessica Dezall Photo)
FM-Calving 15 BWC webAbove and below: Chad Thomson attempts to get a calf to feed from its mother. (Brent Calver Photo)
FM-Calving 16 JD webA calf feeds on fresh milk during the calving season at XL Ranch near Black Diamond on April 2. (Jessica Dezall Photo)
FM-Calving 18 BWC webAbove and below: Candace Thomson prepares milk to feed to a calf that was unable to naturally feed from its mother. (Brent Calver Photo)
FM-Calving 17 BWC webCandace Thomson prepares milk to feed to a calf that was unable to naturally feed from its mother. (Brent Calver Photo)
FM-Calving 23 BWC (1) webA cow gives birth on XL Ranch near Black Diamond on April 2. Calves come out in the water bag, which soon comes off, with help from the mother. (Brent Calver Photo)
FM-Calving 24 BWC webAbove: After giving birth, the mother cow cleans its calf, even eating the afterbirth as it does so.
Below: The calf opens its eyes to the world as its mother continues to clean. (Brent Calver Photo)
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FM-Calving 26 JD webThe calf attempts its first steps with mixed results. (Jessica Dezall Photo)
FM-Calving 27 JD webNow on its feet, the newborn calf stays close to its mother. (Jessica Dezall Photo)
FM-Calving 22 BWC webCalves continue to get frequent cleanings from their mothers' formidable tongue. (Brent Calver Photo)

Once the calves have matured a little, the herd is driven out west of Turner Valley to a forestry grazing lease.  

There they will graze the foothills around Bluerock Wildland and Sheep River Provincial Parks until October, when they’re rounded up and brought home.  

The ranchers have kept their herd going for the better part of a century, with Chad being the fourth generation.

“It’s what my family’s been doing forever and I’m happy to keep it going.”

FM-Calving 13 BWC webChad and Candace Thomson with their son Hayes, atop their horses Marty, Slim, and Jack respectively. Together with Chad's father John, raise cattle on the family's XL Ranch near Black Diamond. (Brent Calver Photo)

Photographer’s statement: I met John Thomson and his brother Gary, who also keeps a herd of his own in the Foothills, while photographing their cattle drives—John’s fall drive in 2019 Gary’s spring drive in 2018. Having not been exposed to this way of life growing up, my curiosity drove my interest to photograph and showcase more of the yearly cycles that go into raising cattle. John Thomson, as well as Chad, Candace, and Hayes graciously gave myself and SAIT Photojournalism student Jessica Dezall the opportunity to capture a brief glimpse of yet another part of ranching life. 


Brent Calver

About the Author: Brent Calver

Award-winning photojournalist for the Okotoks Western Wheel and OkotoksToday.ca
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