The pitfalls, scars and tradition of branding day

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Diane Prather

Calving season is winding down and ranchers are turning their attention to branding.

During elementary school presentations, retired Moffat County Brand Inspector Floyd Martin tells students that brands are like return addresses — that’s how ranchers get their cattle back if they stray.

So, branding is an important ranch job, indeed, especially since it won’t be long until cattle will be turned out onto summer pasture.

Branding varies somewhat from ranch to ranch.

For example, large cattle operations may require more than one brand.

Some ranchers rope calves from horseback and work them from the ground.

Others use calf tables.

Some heat irons with a wood-fed fire, while others use propane to heat the irons.

Still others use electric irons.

However no matter how many cattle there are on the ranch or what methods are used, the following can be used to describe branding day:

• Even if it’s been warm and dry for two weeks, inevitably the weather turns stormy when it’s time to brand.

• Because of changes in the weather, branding day is often rescheduled, and sometimes more than once.

• Sometimes clouds loom overhead while branding is going on, and everyone involved hopes that rain (even snow) holds off until the branding is finished.

• Ranchers take turns helping one another brand.

• Branding is often on Saturday or Sunday, when the kids are out of school and some of the helpers don’t have to work.

• A branding barrel with wood stacked nearby is a sign the ranch will soon be branding.

• Ranchers check the inventory of vaccines and other branding supplies and make a list for the ranch supply store.

• Cows are known for their “stupidity,” but on branding day they somehow know “what’s up” and take their calves to the far end of the pasture.

• Vaccines, syringes, tags, a tagging gun, rubbing alcohol, and other supplies are gathered up for the day because there are other jobs that take place that day, too, such as giving calves their shots.

• Everyone has a job, and sometimes it's the same job year after year.

• If using a calf table, calves have to be pushed up an alleyway into the chute, and this job usually falls to the kids.

• While pushing up calves, kids get kicked at least once and stepped on.

• It’s somebody’s job to tally the number of heifers and steers, and though this job sounds easy it can sometimes be mind-boggling (did I mark that calf or not?).

• No matter the weather, there’s usually wind that blows smoke right on the workers.

• There’s plenty of good humor during branding and a lot of jokes about Rocky Mountain Oysters.

• It wouldn’t be a branding if a calf didn’t escape through the chute and have to be chased down.

• There’s plenty of cattle bawling on branding day, as there is anytime cattle are gathered up.

• Sorting the calves off from the cows is probably the worst job on branding day.

• After branding there’s always a big meal, which kept Mom cooking the day before, and time to visit.

• Stacy Gray’s “Beef and Bean Green Chile Stew” is apt to be served up after the Gerber family brands (and perhaps at other brandings, too, since Stacy shared her recipe).

• Ranchers make sure there’s plenty of cold water and soda on hand during branding, especially if it’s a hot day.

• New bulls are branded, too.

• When they aren’t helping out, kids find time to play in a creek, if one runs nearby.

• Once in a while, a brand gets put on backwards, and the brander is reminded about it forever after.

• At the end of the day, helpers are sunburned, smell like branding smoke and their clothes have to be pre-treated with a stain remover, but no one generally complains. The next spring job is usually turning the cattle out on summer pasture, but that's a topic for a future column.

Copyright Diane Prather, 2012

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