Branding on the West Boulder
"Ain't This Romantic" is the title of a forthcoming book
by Cowboy and Author Kent Hanawalt.
Click the titles below for excerpts.
I scheduled our branding for May 20, and was rather
looking forward to it. The century old tradition of ranches
trading help to rope out the calves and drag them to the
fire was largely a thing of the past, but we would be
holding out for the old way.
Like everything else, ranching has become more high-tech
through the years. Haying has changed from a large crew with
many teams of horses to a couple of men with
hydraulically-operated equipment. Likewise, feeding has
"progressed" from forking hay out of a horse-drawn wagon to
watching from the comfort of a heated as the hay is fed out
by a machine. Help has become quite hard to find, and there
are now many 1-man cattle operations. There are no longer
large pools of labor from which to draw teams of wrestlers,
and most ranches have turned to the use of "calf tables".
At one time it was common to see several ropers heeling
out calves to four or more teams of young ranch hands who
would throw the calves and hold them stretched out on their
sides as the calves were branded, castrated, de-horned, and
vaccinated by a few more ground people. Each calf might only
be restrained for one minute, with several on the ground at
a time. A good crew of 15 hands can go through 400 head in 3
hours, and have plenty of time to drink beer. Brandings were
community social gatherings, and a meal was nearly always
served. The youth flirted, the women cooked, and the old men
told how it was in their day.
Now you are more likely to find a couple of people
pushing calves up a chute into a contraption that squeezes
around the calf and then tips over to restrain the calf on
his side at a handy working height. The calves can only be
worked one at a time, and it takes a couple of minutes each.
The new way takes far less help than the old way, and is
really more time-efficient. But it is just another day's
In the new millennium there are lots of town-folk, team
ropers, "wannabe" cowboys, (and a few who "usta was"), that
want to participate - or at least feel like they're
participating - in an old-style branding. I had a big enough
crew lined up, and we were going to make the job fun!
But a dark cloud began to gather in the week just before
we were set to brand. With all the town help, I needed some
sure-enough stockhands to get the job done. Several of the
experienced folks I had called weren't able to make it, and
I began to worry about halving enough good help.
As I drove home from the ranch on Friday night I was
going over in my mind who I would have for what jobs, and
the tools, equipment, and supplies we would need, when my
pickup began to make a strange noise. When I arrived home
and shut off the pickup, a cloud of smoke billowed out. A
bearing had gone out of the front differential - I was
The next morning, we were up early. Kathi had her own
troubles getting a meal together for a crew that might be
anywhere from 20 to 40 people. We had to make a stop in town
for food and ice on the way up to the ranch, and I was
anxious to get there. As we left town it was raining hard
Several pickups with horse trailers had arrived at the
ranch before us and were awaiting instructions. I had them
move the bulls out of the corral and begin gathering the
cows while I gathered up the equipment and vaccine and set
I was near panic when I pulled the vaccine out of the
refrigerator and read the label - it was the wrong stuff!!
The vet himself had given me the vaccine, and he had handed
me the wrong bottles for the cows. I called the vet's office
to report the mistake, and Kathi made a quick phone call to
a friend who would bring out the correct vaccine.
The sky was getting darker, and showers were apparent on
the horizon as the cows came through the gate. It was cold
enough that I was wearing a wool coat, and I had on my
overshoes as we sorted the cows away from their calves.
People continued to arrive as we sorted, and a rain
shower settled the dust. You can't brand a wet calf, as the
steam generated will scald a large area and make the brand
unreadable. I'd had enough trouble gathering this crew, and
didn't have much hope in getting them together again the
next weekend. The year before we'd been rained out half way
through, and had to finish up branding the calves on a
We could vaccinate the cows while we had them separated
from the calves, however, and that would get part of the job
done - as soon as the correct vaccine arrived from town.
But the shower passed. Everyone hadn't arrived yet, but
we had enough people to start. We could get some of the
calves branded today! I lit the fire and signaled to a
couple of men to start roping.
We had a new tool to try for the first time - it was a
Y-shaped steel fork that fit behind a calf's head. The fork
is connected by rope to an innertube, and the innertube is
connected by rope to a stake in the ground. When a calf is
dragged out of the corral the fork is positioned behind his
ears and the roper stretches the calf out against the
tension on the innertube.
There are always plenty of people who want to rope and a
branding, and it's hard to find enough competent wrestlers.
In years past, the roper would heel the calf out to a pair
of wrestlers who would throw the calf and release the rope
while they held him for branding. With this new device, no
wrestlers were required to hold the calf.
It took awhile to learn the technique for snaring the
calf with the fork, but it took the pressure off the
wrestlers. They were only needed for calves that were caught
with but one heel, or for a calf that the fork-man missed.
We were getting up to speed when the sun came out. I
quickly shucked my coat and overboots and started looking
around for the water. Phil had come early with the horses,
and Amy was following with the kids and the water jug. It
was getting dusty again, and Amy was a welcome sight.
By 11:30 it was just plain hot, and I was getting anxious
about the beer. Some folks from Bozeman were so excited
about a branding that they volunteered to bring a keg. I had
the ice, the barrel, the cups, and the thirst. I began to
review in my head the instructions I had given them to find
By noon we had the first bunch of calves done! Dinner
wasn't quite ready and the vaccine had arrived. The beer
showed up as we started the cows through the chute. With six
cows at a time it didn't take long to get them done, and we
were soon headed for the house.
In the morning's haste I hadn't had time to catch my
horse. After a big branding dinner, I saddled up Thunder and
led the crew back down to the corral.
Things were moving right along in the second group of
calves when Jim got off his horse and told me to go to
roping - he'd take over the branding iron for me.
My original plan had been to cut off the cows and work
them first. With that in mind I had told the potential
wrestlers to join us for lunch and expect to start branding
in the afternoon. But the lack of vaccine and the threat of
rain had caused a change.
With this second bunch of calves we were at full force.
The sky was blue, the sun was hot, the beer was cold. The
morning's activities had been a rehearsal, and now we were
knocking out calves in a steady stream.
In two hours the calves were all done and people began to
drift away. It didn't take long to run the second bunch of
cows through the chute for their vaccinations, and soon the
what was left of the crew was gathered around the keg as the
bawling cows and calves searched for each other among the
After a last beer we counted the cows out of the corral
and back toward the pasture. The remaining horses were
loaded into the trailers. The end of a line of stock
trailers was just turning onto the county road when the sky
opened and rain began to pour out of the sky. A week's fret
and worry was washed away with the rain - we'd gotten the
branding done for another year!
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