Springtime means branding time. Wyoming cowboys and cowgirls gather and travel from ranch to ranch to help get a job done that takes lots of hands. They can always count on a cold beer, a hot lunch and lots of hard work as hundreds of calves are branded, castrated, vaccinated, ear tagged and returned to their anxious mother cows for sympathy and a little something to eat.
The day starts early with lots of riders to gather cattle from the range and herd them into corrals or holding pens. Calves are separated into separate pens and the fun begins.
The wranglers drop a loop and try to catch a heel, then drag the calves to the open arms of a vast array of helpers, each with a specific task. The dust flies, the sun climbs in the sky, and the work goes on.
Calves are sometimes branded with different brands, reflecting ownership and tagged as to male and female. In this instance, the guys get the bad breaks and are castrated to become steers to be fattened and sent to market to become burgers and steaks.
Ranching has no clearly defined roles. Women build fence, ride horseback, gather cattle, brand calves, irrigate meadows, help with cutting and baling hay, run combines and tractors, tend baby calves and lambs in their laundry rooms to keep them alive in a blizzard, raise poultry, plant vegetable gardens, and at summer’s end, preserve fruit and vegetables for the winter. That is in addition to running a household and being wife and mother.
These black Angus calves are the lifeblood of a ranch. Some of the females, or heifers, will be held back to add to the herd–and some are sold to other ranchers who are building their herds. Without the revenue raised from these cattle, ranches would not exist. Nobody gets rich, but the lucky ones who can maintain the lifestyle of ranching are rich indeed. (Dad always said the best way for a rancher to get rich was to have an oil well or two!)
In spite of all the buggies on four wheels that seem to proliferate on every country road, nothing gets the job done like a horse. I don’t think they will be replaced any time soon.
Kids love branding time. I can remember sneaking my first cold beer from a tub of ice in the back of a pickup and I couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9. All the adults were too busy to notice. Getting old enough to ride on the roundup, even though it meant getting up at 5:00 a.m. and shivering in the cool morning air on horseback, was a thrill and an honor.
As the calves are released from the trauma of the branding, they are diverted to another pen. These young cowpokes make sure they don’t head off in the wrong direction.
Cannot help but love these babies. Their antics as playful calves aren’t any different from puppies, kittens, foals or any other of God’s creatures. I can remember loving my 4-H lambs so much we brought them home from the fair rather than sell them at the livestock auction. Dad thought I might forget about them once they were turned out to pasture, but I still remember searching through the herd for their familiar faces.
A little chaos makes for a good day’s fun. Hardest part of the day was grabbing all the action on a camera. Maybe a videotape would have been easier??
Relative calm in this direction, as some of the calves have begun to find their mothers.
Branding is not for the faint of heart. The calf bellows and tries to escape and it takes several pairs of hands (and feet) to get the job done. It is over in a matter of seconds and the brand mark will sting for awhile and heal like any wire cut or scratch from a tree limb. But at the moment, it is hard not to feel sorry for the calves.
Some say the ranching way of life is threatened and going the way of small farmers. Certainly rising land costs, uncertain cattle markets, inheritance taxes, generational disputes and one-thousand other things can all add up to make things difficult. But the ranching families with grit and determination will hold on.