A MOO-VING EXPERIENCE
Checking in for calving season at Lucky Dog Ranch.
WRITTEN BY CATHERINE ENFIELD
PHOTOS BY TERRI GILLILAND
Just west of Sacramento, across the causeway and with a view of a distant city skyline, sits a large pasture filled with cattle — about 100 cows, 10 bulls, and an ever-changing number of calves. The cattle live peaceful lives grazing on grass and raising their young. Eventually, some will end up on diners’ plates at local restaurants.
Many people in the Sacramento region have dined on Lucky Dog Ranch beef, certainly if they’ve had beef at Lucca Restaurant & Bar or Roxy Restaurant & Bar in Sacramento, or the new Meadowlands restaurant in Sloughhouse. These restaurants and the ranch are owned by Terri and Ron Gilliland. Ranch, in the singular, would be a misnomer, as Lucky Dog includes properties in several areas, including Dixon, Davis, Sloughhouse, and Colusa. All told, there are about 1,600 cows across all the properties.
Minding the mothers
Avril Gilliland, Ron’s cousin and ranch manager, is out in the muddy pasture on the Dixon property, riding the dirt quad. Her trained eye is looking for any new calves or signs of trouble. She was raised on a farm in Ireland, where she spent her entire life taking care of cattle. She can spot a cow in distress a quarter mile away. If she sees a newborn, she’ll jump off the ATV, wrangle the calf, and tag the ears with an identification number. Later, she notes in a log which cow is the mother. If she spots a cow that looks as if it might be in distress during labor, she catches it, takes it to a nearby paddock for observation, and assists it if necessary.
Gilliland explains that this particular pasture is filled with proven mothers. These cows all have given birth at least once before, so they know the drill. They are left out here to give birth naturally and raise the calves until they are seven or eight months old. At that time, the calves will be taken to another pasture to grow up on their own.
The cycle begins again as the heifers go into heat within six weeks of giving birth. The 10 bulls in the pasture will soon have them pregnant, and nine months later, more calves will be born. Northern California’s mild climate allows for year-round breeding. In other regions of the country where winters are harsh, calves must be mature enough to withstand the cold weather. Such operations breed on a seasonal basis.
Any heifer that’s pregnant for the first time is kept at another property where she can be closely watched.
“Sometimes a new mother doesn’t know what to do,” Gilliland explains. “They might be so exhausted by the new experience of birth that they just lie there resting and don’t check the baby.”
The calf could have been born with the birth sac still around it and could suffocate. It’s up to the mother to lick the sac off the calf immediately. If a mom is remiss, it’s up to a human to remove it.
Gilliland explains that twins and triplets aren’t normal in cattle the way they are in sheep. Triplets are extremely rare — she’s never seen any herself. Twins might happen about 2 percent of the time.
“Sometimes things go in spurts,” she says. “Last year, we had quite a few twins, enough for us to note it as a twin-heavy year.”
If a cow has twins, Gilliland has to be alert. Sometimes a calf will be born at one end of the pasture, then the cow takes care of it and moves across the pasture before she gives birth to the second calf. She can get so preoccupied with the second calf that she forgets she has another one across the field, thus orphaning the first calf. Gilliland will scoop up the orphan and take it to be hand fed or adopted by another mother.
Lucky Dog’s owners pride themselves on offering quality, grass-fed beef that’s free of hormones and antibiotics. The newborns receive no inoculations.
“The calves’ immune systems will be naturally boosted by the colostrum they receive from their mothers’ milk,” Gilliland says.
Colostrum is the first milk sucked from mothers after a birth. It’s thicker than regular milk and contains powerful nutrients and antibodies.
“The only time we add anything is some additional immune [supplement] to the babies of first-time mothers,” Gilliland says. “The moms will not always have a strong colostrum the first time.”
The cattle at this location have pretty easy lives: eat, mate, have babies. The cows and bulls here will get to live much longer lives than many of their offspring. Beef cattle live about two years before going to slaughter. The cows here will live about a decade or more before being sold to processors.
Gilliland packs up the quad and her two dogs. It’s time to check on another herd of cattle on another property.
Catherine Enfield is overly obsessed with food and started writing about it nine years ago in her blog, Munchie Musings. In 2010, she helped start the gourmet food truck movement in Sacramento. Since then she also has founded the Sacramento Food Film Festival and Have an Offal Day.
Where to find Lucky Dog Ranch meats
Sunday Farmers’ Market
Every Sunday, year-round
8 a.m. – noon
8th and W streets, Sacramento
Lucca Restaurant & Bar
1615 J St., Sacramento
Roxy Restaurant & Bar
2381 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento
12700 Meiss Road, Sloughhouse