Shelbi Gustafson was born a farmer and, living on her Geary County farm with her two children, her parents and a herd of certified Hereford cattle, she’s in the agriculture field to stay.
She’s one of many farmers with a cow-calf operation in the county.
Gustafson is part of a long line of farmers — multiple generations of her family have farmed in Geary County.
Farming comes with its own unique challenges and rewards for Gustafson.
Though the weather has warmed up nicely, the chill that struck Geary County at the end of February took a toll and Gustafson’s — and everyone else’s — cattle.
Calving season starts at the end of January and the calves — as with human babies — come when they’re good and ready and often enough that’s when it’s freezing cold.
During that time, farmers such as Gustafson can’t stay indoors with the heat cranked up.
Because frostbite can strike a calf shortly after it’s born, farmers don’t sleep much during calving season. It’s easy for a newborn calf to freeze to death on a cold winter night. Farmers have to check their cattle constantly to keep the calves safe. First-time parents don’t always know what they’re doing and that holds true for heifers, Gustafson said, so she and her family often find themselves helping their cows care for their first calves.
Gustafson’s cattle roam a hillside on the property, so she can’t check them so often after dark.
“We calve in the hills — our cows do,” she said. “There’s nothing we can do from the time the sun goes down to the time the sun goes up. So you just went out at daybreak and made your laps and hoped for the best. And it wasn’t always pretty what you found.”
She does keep track of the ones kept nearer the house, however, checking on them every few hours or so during calving season.
“There were some nights — those extreme cold nights — we were going out every hour,” she said.
She, her 13-year-old daughter Tava and her parents, Gus and Deb, would switch off so everyone could catch at least some sleep.
On nights when the windchill is well below zero, it’s best to bring calves in practically the minute they hit the ground, allowing them about 30 minutes to bond with their mothers before taking them indoors, Gustafson said. Calves can easily lose the tips of their tails and ears to frostbite. This, in addition to being unpleasant for the animal, will decrease their sale prices in later life, which can hurt a cow-calf operation such as Gustafson’s.
This year, the family rescued about 20 calves from the cold, bringing them into their home and caring for them until they could be allowed back outside with their mothers.
No matter how hard family members try, they always lose a few. There’s only so much farmers can do. This year, Gustafson lost about five calves to the cold.
“You try your hardest to save them,” she said. “You can’t save them all. There’s no physical way of saving them all.”
A cold night
These losses aside, nothing extreme happened this year. Last year, however, Gustafson recalls having to fish a calf out of a creek on her property.
“Last year, I ended up in the (creek) at midnight,” she said.
A calf had been born on the creek bank and promptly slid into the water, Gustafson said. She went out to check on the cattle and saw the newborn calf in the water. He was still alive, Gustafson said. However, she knew if she didn’t do anything, sooner than later he wouldn’t be. In her pajama pants, Gustafson slid down the creek bank and grabbed the newborn.
And now she was in a predicament. She could either hold on to the calf or climb back up the bank. She couldn’t do both.
“The calf was big and there was no way I was going to take it back up,” she said.
There was a tree root sticking out of the bank nearby, so she dragged the calf in that direction and entangled two of its legs in the root just to keep it above water. The calf, soaked from its fall into the creek, had begun icing over in the below-freezing night air.
By chance, Gustafson had put her cellphone in her coat pocket. By some miracle, she said, she had reception. She called her parents’ house and it rang through.
“My mom picked it up on the second ring,” Gustafson said. “The only thing I got out of my mouth was, ‘I need help, I’m in the (creek)’ and the phone cut out. And I tried calling back — it wouldn’t go through. I never could get it to go back through.”
Both she and the calf were soaking wet at this point. To make matters worse, the calf’s mother was trying to get to her baby. If the cow slid down the bank, Gustafson knew, she’d take both her calf and Gustafson out in the process, sending all three of them into the cold creek waters.
“So I’m yelling at her, trying to get her to stay away,” Gustafson said. “It felt like an eternity went by. It felt like I was there forever. It probably wasn’t more than 10 minutes, but it felt like hours.”
Finally, she heard her dad coming. Thankfully, she had left her Ranger parked not far from the creek with the headlights on, so he found her easily. He threw Gustafson a rope which she tied around the calf’s midsection. He was unable to pull the calf out of the creek on his own — it was too big.
“He used a tree as a leverage point and between me pushing the calf up the (creek) bank and him pulling the rope, we got the calf up out of the (creek), got me up out of the (creek),” she said. “I’m soaking wet — freezing — in my fuzzy pajama pants that I’m in and the calf was just solid ice.”
The calf would live — he made a full recovery on Gustafson’s kitchen floor to be sent back out to his mother the next day — and Gustafson would learn a lesson.
“Don’t go checking cattle half prepared in the cold because you never know what situation you’re going to end up in,” she said.
If she had ended up in that situation in this year’s bitter cold, things likely would have ended differently. Gustafson would most likely have had to let the calf go, she said.
“It would have been a lot worse situation,” she said. “Last year, it was zero (degrees). And yeah, zero’s cold, but it’s not -30 (degrees windchill.) I laughed about it afterwards, but my mother was not impressed, because she said nobody knew where I was. Nobody knew that I was in the (creek) with a baby, dealing with that, you know? And if I wouldn’t have got that phone to ring through and call for help, I would have had to, at some point, probably given up. You know what I mean? Because I just physically didn’t have the strength to get that calf out of that situation.”
They have to save as many calves as possible, not just because they care about the animals but because every calf lost is money down the drain for a cow-calf operation. Too many calves lost hurts a business.
The business end
Farming — especially working with live animals the way Gustafson does — is not something one takes vacations from easily. When there’s work to be done, family celebrations are put on hold and outside businesses temporarily go on the back burner.
Gustafson has two businesses in town — Gross Wrecker Service, Paws Inn and several rental properties that supplement her farming income. She still has to deal with these ventures during calving season, but to the extent possible she leaves them on their own because of the intense nature of her farming business.
“I kind of like being my own boss,” she said. “But it is a seven-day-a-week job. You can’t decide, ‘oh, I’m not going to feed my cows today.’ You don’t get that option. You have to go do it. You’ve got to love it or it gets old fast.”
Cow-calf operations are family affairs. Everyone takes part. That’s how Gustafson got her start — her dad acquired his herd in the 1970s, before her birth in 1980. His parents and grandparents had Herefords as well.
“It’s a way of life,” she said. “I grew up helping my dad. There’s some things you just understand. You understand that your personal life and that kind of stuff gets totally put on hold. I’m a single mom with two kids — I have two kids to take care of. Thank God I have a great support system.”
When Gustafson and her dad are working, her mom helps out with the children and with other tasks, she said.
Tava, as a teenager, is old enough to help and she does. Gustafson’s son, Koy, age 3, desperately wants to, though he’s still a little young. He has been involved in the farm in some fashion since he was born. As a baby, he slept in the back of her heated Ranger while she drove around checking cattle and to this day he spends a lot of time in the back of that vehicle, watching his mother work. This year, he watched a calf be born for the first time, a process he called “disgusting.”
But it hasn’t deterred him from wanting to help.
“It’s going to be a few years before he can help,” Gustafson said. “He wants to help. He wants to be out there and help, but he didn’t quite understand why we didn’t let him go out and help a lot through that cold.”
One day, the children will likely inherit the operation. Gustafson has some mixed feelings about this. She wants her children, especially her daughter, not to have to work constantly the way she does.
“I don’t know if I want her to have the lifestyle that I have and work as hard and as often,” she said. “I don’t take vacations. I don’t — I just don’t. That’s just not my way of life. I don’t know if I want that for my daughter.”
Despite the hard work, however, a cow-calf operation comes with a lot of “gratification at the end of the day,” Gustafson said.
She enjoys seeing the cows and their calves, having successfully made it through the winter, go to grass in May or so.
“Just to see that you did it — you got through another year, you made it through another calving season,” she said. “I love animals. I’m an animal lover. So I enjoy the life of the animal. I don’t — I’m a beef producer — I know what the end product is, I know that they’re on my dinner plate at the end of the day. But just taking care of them. Some people like to have animals and take care of them and I like that part of it.”
She likes being part of a profession that provides the vast majority of the world’s food.
“To be part of the agricultural world — to know that you’re feeding America,” Gustafson said, is a huge source of pride for her. “As many people that don’t think they need the farmers and the ranchers — the people that think that way have no clue. They’re the people that think that their milk and eggs come from Walmart.”
It may be difficult and occasionally thankless, but she wouldn’t give it up for the world.
This year’s calves will all go to grass around the end of April or early May. Gustafson is counting down the days and after that she’ll count down to next year’s calving season.
“It’s a lot of work,” Gustafson said. “Calving season is something you work all spring, all summer, all fall. You work to prepare for calving season and you’re so excited and you can’t wait for it to get here and then you’re doing the countdown to when it’s going to be over — when you’re done.”
Geary County Extension Agent Chuck Otte said her dedication has impressed him along with the “acknowledgment of the special place that cattle production holds in our culture.”
Also impressive, according to Otte, is that she’s a single woman raising her children and taking care of her herd in a field that has sometimes been considered a man’s world. When he started in extension in the 1980s, Otte said, there were only a handful of women working as ag agents. Now women make up close to half of the profession.
“I think it’s just time that more and more people realize how many women are involved in agriculture,” he said.
Otte said it heartened him as well to see this extended family operation continue on to younger generations — Gustafson’s and her children’s.
“She’s the face of the new generation of cattle production in America, in my opinion,” he said.