Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Up to this point, my reflections on our life out here have surrounded birth, including the birth of my second child. But, last weekend brought the reminder that life on a cattle ranch has its ups and downs, and over all is part of the process of bringing quality beef to all our families dinner tables.

Soon after each calf is born they receive an ear tag for ranch record keeping purposes and a couple vaccinations, as well as iodine on their umbilical cord stump to ward off infection. And if they are little bulls they are banded to make them little steers.
From that point they live a pretty easy life, drinking up mama's nutrient rich milk, and playing calf games. But, the day does come when they have to grow up just a little bit more, and that day begins with Branding.

For many of you this is the life you live everyday and have full understanding of the reasons why branding is so important. I myself, as one who has very little experience had to do a little research to gain this understanding, and appreciate its tradition. So, for those of you who are like me and lack the knowledge of the reason why branding is so important, hopefully the following information will enlighten you.

Branding is an ancient practice and one can see that it seems a little barbaric and cruel. But it really is an ingenious way to identify ones live stock. Images of branding date back to the Pharaohs in Egypt were elaborate branding scenes on pyramid walls have been found. Fast forwarding slightly, branding has also been used by nobility during the middle ages. Usually using a family coat of arms. In America, branding was introduced by the Spanish, who brought the first livestock to the United States. These are usually referred to as the Mission Brands, or related to Spanish Land Grants. There is no doubt that there is great tradition in branding. But there is function in it as well.
First of all Montana is a state that carries a Branding Law. Which entails that livestock must be branded for identification and ownership purposes. Secondly, branding with a hot iron is permanent. The symbols, letters and numbers that make up a brand are unique. The locations they are placed on an animal are also regulated. For example the TH brand that Nevada Creek Ranch uses is a right shoulder brand. It should not be used anywhere else on the animal. The combination of location and the brand make a unique footprint that tells where this animal was born and/or to whom it belongs. There is also paperwork that ties this brand to the owner, so no dispute can be made. If an animal does change hands it will need to be rebranded and the paperwork verified by a brand inspector.
Many would argue that there must be a better way. With the great advances in technology what about micro chips? Well, they do receive a microchiped ear tag, (a.k.a. RFID), this is required for the sale and shipping of livestock. But the problem with RFID tags is that, tags can be lost, or removed rather easily. The purpose of the RFID tag is to track the location and travel of live stock. However, out on the range, it is not easy to determine whose cattle is whose by looking at or waiving a wand over ear tags. Most cows just won't let you get that close. And it is much more reasonable to look at a bunch of branded cattle and be able to see the brand and determine that say, some of your neighbors cattle had gotten in with yours. (Cows and calves are not always terribly respectful of barbed wire fences as you can see in my reference to Houdini, the cow who got out at least once a day if not more.)
So, now you know the reason we brand. But branding day has a lot more to it than just laying a hot iron on calves and cows. It is also an important time to check the health of each calf. Each calf also receives two vaccinations to protect for a myriad of deceases. They are also wormed. And at our ranch they also receive an implant in the ear, and a fly tag. Records of these procedures are also made for each calf.
Branding also entails a unique working crew unlike that in any other industry. It is coined by the term "neighboring." Which is just that; neighbors from the area come to help, and then that help is reciprocated at the neighbors branding. But, branding is just not a free for all who want to attend. It is a carefully selected working crew. One with people the ranch owners can trust, and also, still be able to talk to at the end of the day. Selection of neighbors is by invitation only, and therefore some honor is tied to being invited to a neighbors branding.
It was amazing to watch the synergy that was created with the branding crew Mr. & Mrs. H selected. It was composed mainly of very good friends who specialized in certain tasks necessary to branding.

We had Mr. & Mrs. Manley, Mr. Manley ran the calf table with Mr. H., Mr. Manley also handled the brand. Mrs. Manley did implants and fly tags. Their son John, helped push calves with Kyle. Good friend Camile did vaccinations. Mr. H also wormed the calves. Mrs. H, handled records and prepped tags. At first glance the calf is pushed into the head catch. Then braced to the table and tipped. It looks almost like he is pounced on by everyone. But, in reality it is a very ordered dance, and all is done quickly as possible so that the calf can be released.

The calves hop out of the chute give a shake of their head and its over. And they are not any worse for the ware.
Branding calves is followed by lunch. My mom and I had the honor of preparing much of the feast this year. The menu: Cowboy Stew and corn bread. Mrs. H made some pies and a salad. It was pretty good. Every one took a brief break. Then back to the corral to work the cows.
Branding is also the time to vaccinate the cows for the coming year, worm them. They also receive a fly tag and the replacement cows are branded.

At the end of the day everyone is as you can imagine, exhausted. But satisfied by a job well done. There were no major injuries. I suppose Kyle and John got the worst of it as they were left with very colorful legs from being kicked by calves all day. Still, a few sore muscles and bruises are just part of the territory. We already are looking forward to next year. It was a good time - At least I can say that having had the cushy job of cooking. Now lets see, next years menu ...

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