Was also busy last week helping at lots of brandings. We don't run cattle ourselves but there are several local ranchers and friends right around us that do. And as this is a Western phenomenon that I never knew a thing about before I moved out here AND one of my favorite yearly events, I thought I'd share the experience with you guys.
First, I would like to say that I LOVE BRANDINGS!!! Everything about them is wonderful from the sites and smells and sounds to the community comradery to the tradition to the food and beer.... All of it! It marks the end of spring and the beginning of summer.
There is nothing quite like the sight of a branding. First things first, all the folks who brought their horses head out as a group, after a brief good morning mounted powwow. Horses and neighbors alike whinny or shout a hello, how'd you winter, and other good natured banter. (I got calls of, wow that pony is fat. Haha)
Then away they all head out to go gather the cattle. Fathers tow their cowboy mini-me's along behind them on their own horses, the youngest of them on a lead, those a little older and braver bouncing along on their own steeds who are better than the greatest of babysitters. A few Cowboys lope off in different directions checking on mother cows who have very recently calved or on lone calves that may be sick. The rest of the crew half circles behind the herd and mother cows start up a deep bellowing call for their young calves as the group of horses and riders push them along, gathering all slowly towards the branding pen. The noise grows as the group comes together with 180+ cows lowing and calling as they search for their young and the riders whistle and whoop to keep them all moving forward.
As the approach to the pen nears, the riders and horses apply a little extra pressure. Sometimes the black mass (with the occasional red Hereford mixed in) moves easily and steadily into the pen and mill about. Other times they dodge the gate or bolt away or jam up in the gate. But there's always a horse and rider to keep them headed the right way. And the occasional good cowdog too.
Once into the branding pen the irons are heated and the three or four guys who are set to rope for the day start getting their ropes ready. The vaccinations are prepped and the littlest cowboys and cowgirls get their grease markers ready to go so they can mark the calves by color as they're dosed with vaccines. (This is a job they take very very seriously and seems to be a sort of rite of passage for all little kids.). Those in charge of castration and ear marking sharpen their knives and the wrestlers partner up.
Then the fun begins. The first rope is cast and the first calf reeled in. Some ropers head, some heel, and sometimes the rope just lands where it lands. The ropers' horses put their heads down and steadily and gently drag the calves to the teams of wrestlers.
One person gets the front end and the other one gets the hind end. The front end person lifts the calf up and as gently as possible lays him on his side with the side to be branded turned up and kneels on the calfs neck. The back person simultaneously grabs the hind leg and sits down and pulls the leg back, stretching the calf to prevent it fighting too much. Release the rope and the roper and horse head in for another while the troops converge on the calf and wrestlers.
All of a sudden there's a lot going on. It must look like total chaos from the outside but it's actually a pretty organized deal. Everyone has their job. Shot, mark, castrate, brand, shot, mark, ear mark, check for bloat or scouts, doctor if needed, turn em loose, repeat. It's all quite efficient and 180+ can easily be branded, castrated, ear marked, and vaccinated in half a day. At any given moment there could be four or five people working on one calf with two wrestlers keeping them steady.
Which, I might add, is not always as easy as it might sound. "Keep your teeth out of the way!" Is a commonly shared piece of advice. The last thing you want is a calf foot to the face. A couple of years ago I got walloped by a flailing hind leg that I lost my grip on right in the belly which knocked me down and socked the wind right out of me. I embarrassingly rolled around on the ground gasping for air while everyone stopped to see if I was all right. (I was, mostly, except for my pride. Haha). I've even seen three or four rather large adult men struggle to get a particularly feisty calf under control, all the while keeping the health and welfare of the calves in mind.
The whole thing is a really great example of team work, both in the community sense and the partnership sense. I struggle to find anything like it, that I've ever been to, in this way. The WHOLE community comes out to help. Young and old, cattle people or not, old members of the community and newcomers too. It's the first real community get together of the year and for some this is the first time they've visited since last fall. It's always so great to see everyone. Everybody works hard and about half way through the herd the boss (in our case the Little Jenny Ranch's Gary Endecott or the Campbell Ranch's Kevin or Lenny Campbell) call for a beer break and everyone gets a chance to visit a bit before finishing the rest of the herd.
My other favorite part of branding is my wrestling partner who also happens to be my partner in life. Now we don't ALWAYS wrestle together. Sometimes me and Liz will get one for the girls and do it ourselves. Or sometimes Sam will jump in and help someone else with a particularly big calf. But I always prefer to wrestle with Sam. We're pretty good together. And I always leave the branding feeling glad that we are such good partners. It brings us together in a way that nothing else can. I mean, don't get me wrong, occasionally I'll cuss him when he loses the head and I'm left holding the tail all on my own. Or he will give me a good ribbing for not holding the calf still enough. But it's always all in good fun. We do a lot of laughing and we depend on each other directly and fully. Every time we go to a branding I feel like we learn to love each other a little bit more.
If you've never been to a branding and never smelled the acrid smoke of burnt calf hair in your nostrils and felt the heat of the brand near your foot and gotten your butt good and dirty and joined in the springtime fun then you should. You don't know what you're missing. It's one of those rare events that's both timeless AND puts you fully in the present. It's 2016 but could just as easily be the 1800's. And it gives a person a sense of purpose and a kinship with their neighbors and friends.
And, by God, we get a job done.