Article and Photos by Kent Hanawalt
In the large acreages of the West, branding is a necessary part of cattle management. It is impossible to keep all of the livestock within the fences all of the time. The pastures are often miles from home and it may be weeks between checks of the cattle. There are usually mountains and valleys, trees and brush for the cattle to hide in. Livestock can disappear for months; branding provides a “return address” for cattle and horses.
Brands are registered by the state brand office, with each owner’s brand having a precise character layout and position on the animal. (My own 3-hanging-H is registered to the left shoulder. The same brand on the right shoulder is registered to a different cattleman.) Brand inspections are required for movement of cattle and horses across a county line in Montana and for change of ownership.
Branding is done when the calves are about 2 months old, before they are turned out to pasture. In Montana, the brandings begin as early as March – for the January calves – and climax in May. The actual brand application requires only about 3 seconds from a hot iron; the hair re-grows in a changed pattern that is permanently visible. Of course, the calf is not a willing participant in the process and must be restrained in some way.
For many years brandings were done with horses to catch the calves, and wrestlers to restrain them. Such is the process still used on many ranches in Montana.
The first step is to corral the bunch to be branded, and then to sort off the cows back into the field, leaving only the calves in the branding pen. A fire is lit in the propane-fired branding pot, vaccines are drawn up into syringes, and several ropers are sent in to begin “heeling” out calves to the wrestlers.
Heeling is seen in a rodeo arena in the “team roping” event, where the first cowboy ropes the steer by the head, and the second cowboy picks up the two hind legs. In a branding pen, however, only the heels are caught, and the roper then pulls the calf in to the wrestlers who release the rope and hold the calf for branding and vaccinations.
The application takes literally seconds. A well-placed brand leaves a clean, brown mark, that will peel in a few weeks just like a summer sunburn. I just had a steroid injection in my shoulder that took longer than that!
The traditional branding is a time for neighbors to come together to help neighbors. It takes a few ropers, a few more wrestlers, and some vaccinators. And those who help me today will appreciate my help at their branding next week. The young men wrestle (and flirt with the young women of the neighboring ranch); everyone takes their turn roping; the older men rotate around helping with the branding, the roping, the vaccinating, and with giving (unwanted, unappreciated, and unheard) advice. There is plenty of action, plenty of company, plenty of beer, and ultimately plenty of food; a big noon(ish) dinner is always part of the event.
It is easy enough to go through one hundred head an hour with a good crew. There may be three or four calves on the ground at a time and the branders and vaccinators are kept busy hopping from one calf to the next.
But over the last few decades the wrestlers have been displaced on many ranches by a modern contraption called a calf table. (Just as the horses on these same ranches have been displaced by four-wheelers.)
Thecalftableissetupattheendofa chute, and one (good) man (or a couple of kids) pushes the calves in one at a time. The headgate is slammed shut on the calf, the sides squeezed in, and the whole contraption is tipped to hold the calf on his side at a handy working level.
The calves can only be worked one at a time with this set-up, but 3 or 4 people can accomplish a task that formerly took 15 or 20. Running calves through a table is only half as fast as heeling calves out to wrestlers, but it takes only a fourth the crew. And so technology has improved on the efficiency of the task at hand.
But of course, you only get a fourth as many volunteers for branding with a calf table… because it’s twice the work and half the fun.
Some of us will stick to the old ways.
For more stories from Kent Hanawalt, check out his book, Ain’t This Romantic!?!: Adventures of a Twentieth Century Cowboy, available on amazon.com.