Branding is a very social event in Wyoming. Ranchers often make a party out of branding day by having a cook-out and inviting friends and family to take part. These ranchers frequently ride horseback and rope their calves in order to brand them. Doing it this way requires a lot of people and some very good roping horses, neither of which we have! Our general philosophy about cattle is that we want to impose as little stress on them as possible. We try to avoid stressing our cows both because we aim to be as humane as possible and because a stressed cow loses weight. If you are raising beef cattle, weight loss is not good for business! As a result of our philosophy, we do not hit our cows, we move quietly when herding them, we rarely raise our voices to them and we do not use electric cattle prods. When branding, we have found the least stressful option is to use a calf table, which is a pretty nifty little item (photographs to come!). Using a calf table is not nearly as glamorous or exciting as roping calves in a corral, so our branding days are not parties. It is just the Farm Team: Jim, Bob, Richard and I.
Whether you use ropes or calf tables, branding day is a long day, so we get an early start. Here Whistle is, greeting Bob first thing in the morning. She, for one, is wide awake and excited for the day, despite the early hour!
In the photograph, you can see Bob reaching into his pocket. He is retrieving a biscuit for Whistle, which drives Richard and me bonkers. He has trained her to jump on him by giving her a biscuit every time she does. Thank goodness this little trick of hers has not transferred to other people!
Like most ranch responsibilities, branding day involves many different phases:
First Major Task: To herd the cows and calves from their 100 acre pasture into the corral. No small feat!
Second Major Task: Separate the babies from their mamas– the saddest part!
Third Major Task: Brand and vaccinate the calves.
Fourth Major Task: Process the cows.
The Happy End: Mothers reunite with their calves!
To accomplish Task One, Richard, Jim and I planned to ride horses to herd the cows in, while Bob would lure them into the corral with the hay truck, scattering hay in the pen. Since I already had horses in the corrals to teach them neck reining, Richard and I decided to ride two of them for the sake of convenience. Richard and I waffled over whether to use my neck reining horses. Generally, the horses I work with are not the most experienced with cows, and herding the pairs in for branding day is a rather intense experience– lots of cows moving quickly in a relatively small space. Even seasoned cow horses can get over-excited in such a situation. In the end, Richard and I decided to roll the dice and see how Alicante and Isabella handled the situation. I rode Alicante, an Arabian-Thoroughbred-Andalusian cross who was bred at the ranch. Has there ever been a cuter face? He has NO idea that he is about to be in the middle of hundreds of bawling animals:
Here is Richard’s steed, Isabella, an Azteca mare we bought this past summer. She saw her first cow when she arrived at the ranch in July, and she is still not sure what to make of those wacky, four-legged creatures:
Jim rode, Twist, a pretty Quarter-horse mare that Mel bred on the ranch. He bought her from us last year:
We set out to round up the stray calves that were playing at the bottom of the field and herd them toward their mothers. Here the babies are running away from Richard and Isabella:
Then we herded the pairs up the hill toward the corral:
Isn’t it going smoothly?? Don’t worry, the smoothness doesn’t last long! We got to the top of the hill, and we had 90% of the cows in the corral. I was busily (and distractedly) snapping photographs, Richard and Jim were chuckling about how easy herding the pairs had been, when BAM! A calf took off at top speed! You can see it running to the right straight toward Jim and Richard:
Jim and Richard cantered off after the calf, which left Alicante and me in a predicament. Alicante did not like being abandoned by his horse friends at top speed and began prancing in place, whinnying loudly. Fumbling, I shoved my camera phone into my pocket, trying to get ready for the tantrum Alicante was on the verge of throwing. When I finally looked up, my eyes went as wide as saucers: the entire herd of cows was leaving the corral at a gallop, heading straight for Alicante and me. The sprinting calf had excited them, and they had decided they were going back to pasture at a fast clip. Alicante and I were the only things in their way, as Richard and Jim were still chasing the rogue calf. Alicante’s patience was growing thin– every muscle in his body was tensed, I could see the whites of his eyes, he started nickering nervously. He was trying so hard to be a good boy! I could almost hear him saying, “Lady, do you really think we are going to stop this herd of galloping cattle all by ourselves? Can we please get out of here now?” Ultimately, I agreed with Alicante– there was no way we were stopping those cows alone! So, what did we do? We turned around and ran down the hill ahead of the cows. It would have made a funny aerial view: 200 sprinting Angus cows chasing a lone horse and rider down a hill– reverse herding! Eventually Richard, Jim and I regrouped, and our second attempt at herding the pairs into the corral actually did go smoothly. I left my camera in my pocket for Round 2, just in case:).
Once we had the cows in the pen, we dismounted for Task 2, the separation of cows and calves. You have to keep in mind that throughout branding day, we have a very, very loud soundtrack of bawling cows and crying calves. At times it is hard to hear yourself think. At this point, the four of us have choreographed branding day to the point of an elegant dance– we go about most of the business silently. BUT, 4 years ago, when I was New Girl, or two years ago, when Jim was New Guy, there were lots of confused and confusing conversations (held at a screeching volume in order to be heard over the cows!) like this:
Call from Richard: “…..adddleyy…..ow…ming….pen…gay……WICK!”
(Translation: “Hadley! A cow is coming! Open the gate quick!”)
Response from Hadley: “Wha…icha…ich gay…..?” As I finish shrieking, I see a cow sprinting toward me, and I trip over my own feet diving for the gate to open the Cow Pen. A charming image, right?!
(Translation: “What, Richard? Which gate?”)
Thank goodness the days of verbal communication on branding day are now over! In the end, after we danced our quick and sexy Cha-Cha of Calf Sorting, we had a pen full of calves:
And a pen full of cows:
After a quick break for lunch, we moved on to Task 3: Branding Time!
Jim’s job was to lead the calves down the chute to the calf table:
Here the calf is standing in the calf table:
Once the calf is situated in the table, we flip the table up:
Now the calf is ready to get its vaccines and brand. This is the position in which Richard and I hold the calf in preparation for Bob to brand it:
Look at the smoke curl as Bob brands the calf:
And the brand, a Flying T on the right shoulder:
Though they are up and running around moments after receiving their brands, it typically takes the calves a week or two to recover fully from the stress of branding. They are lethargic for awhile before bouncing back to their perky and playful natures. It took several hours to work our way through all of the calves, and for those of you who are curious, Onyx received vaccinations, but NO brand!
After branding the last calf, we moved on to Task 4: processing cows. Each cow needed her yearly vaccinations, in the form of shots, and a squirt of Ivomec on her back to de-worm her. It was identical to processing heifers, except for the fact that the cows know the exactly what is going on, so they march down the chute like champs without any encouragement from us. As a result, despite the fact we had four times more cows than we did heifers, we processed them in the same amount of time! Gotta love those smart, seasoned cows!
At last, around 6:30 pm, we reunited the cows with their babies, and things finally started quieting down around the farm! We opened the gate, and they all headed out to bury their heads in the numerous bales of alfalfa hay we had placed in the pasture for them. And that, my friends, is the Happy End!