This is a wonderful time of year when ranchers are getting ready for branding. It is a little stressful as the ranchers want things to go smoothly as their precious babies are prepped for what lies ahead. Brandings are when family and friends gather to do a very important job of taking every calf through the process of vaccinations, branding, pouring, and castrating the bull calves. It takes a large crew of hard workers to get through the herd with the intensity level pretty high. I am not saying it can’t be enjoyable, but accidents can happen, and everyone has to be paying attention.
There are a few different methods of branding calves and it really just relies on the preference of the boss man. There are things called Nord Forks. To use a Nord Fork, a mounted rider ropes a calf by the heels then drags the calf past the ground crew. As the calf goes by, one of the ground crew members slips the Nord Fork behind the calf’s head. As the heeler continues to drag the calf, a rope and inner tube tied to the Nord Fork and staked into the ground, tighten. When the rope and inner tube are tight, the heeler quits dragging. It claims to be less stressful on the calf, save time, energy, and manpower.
Then there is a calf cradle option. The calf is run into a small chute. The cradle is then tipped on its side and the necessary shots, branding, and castration are done. The traditional method involves a roper that goes into the pen of calves and ropes one by two hind feet and drags him to the ground crew. Two stout muggers are going to handle the calf and get it to the ground on its side. One mugger will get on the front end of the calf and hold its head down while the other mugger will be on the hind legs, take the rope off, and control the hind end. They work in pairs. Ideally, it is best to have several pairs of muggers, as this is extremely hard work if the calves have any size on them at all. Once the calf is on its side, someone yells out whether it is a bull or a heifer. Bulls must be castrated by someone else other than the muggers. All calves are branded, given vaccinations (given by 1 or 2 other people) to fight approximately 12 different diseases, and given a multi-mineral shot. Some ranchers pour an insecticide on their backs and tag the babies. The newest or youngest member of the branding crew is in charge of the “nut bucket.” This is for a later dish of Rocky Mountain Oysters, deep fried for supper. There is a lot that happens in about 1 minute.
For a herd of 100 calves, we try to have a crew of about 15. Our kids are coming home from college and bringing some of their new friends to help with the branding. Everyone who has been to a branding knows that it is very hard work, but there is just a great feeling about flexing your muscles, getting dirty, and doing an important job. The men feel like men and the women feel empowered. Now that my kids are older, I have been moved to cook and hydration chief, like “Po Campo” of Lonesome Dove, but not quite as enigmatic. Trust me, my new position is also very important, as the ground crew gets very thirsty and hungry from this task.
So, if you get invited to go to a branding, go and embrace one of the true experiences of the western lifestyle. Once all the calves have been branded and worked, there is a celebration of a job well done. Everyone shades up, wipes the brow, and relaxes with a cold refreshment. I highly doubt the choice will be Bud Lite.