Updated: Jun 5, 2020
*Warning: This piece contains graphic content and images*
There are hundreds of calves to brand on every ranch; thousands of cows to gather. Where many hands pitch in, the workload lightens and brightens. Plus, it makes for a party, of sorts. Bella couldn’t help grinning the night before the branding, checking and double-checking that I didn’t have any questions about tomorrow. She’s 10 years old, and grew up as a city girl in Texas. From the way she sat on the kitchen floor, demonstrating how to hold down the back end of a calf, you’d never know she only moved here two years ago.
In the morning, we could see our breath as we joined friends and family, along with the dozen miscellaneous toddlers hanging off their arms. Horses stood half asleep, rein-tied to trailers and railings all over the yard. We’d all brought them in case we needed to gather cattle, but they proved most useful as entertainment for the young kids. I led Noah around; a five-year-old cowboy wearing turquoise boots and the smallest spurs you’ve ever seen. From my saddle, Noah got a better view over the iron railings.
That’s where the real action was happening. One young mum was in there with the cowboys, helping move the calves, whilst holding a toddler on her hip. The little girl was wearing a hat shaped like a unicorn. One heifer split from the herd, panicked, and started towards them. The mum set the girl on her feet, held her hand, and – without letting go – darted left and right to shoo the calf back to the herd. It was only a foot away from them when it finally jerked back to the others. The little girl was shaken but unhurt, and a better cowgirl for it. The next time I saw her she was happily eating a burrito the size of her face.
The five men on horses were further off, sorting calves from cows, and manoeuvring them between pens, ready for the branding. I’d never seen real cowboys at work before. They seemed to hardly move their hands at all, only twitching the reins to command the horse and make the calves stream from pen to pen like water. Above the mass of dark animals, the cowboy’s figures stuck out against the low sky, their ropes swinging through grey clouds which matched and mingled with the billowing dust from the ground. They worked carefully and casually, unaware of the picture through which they moved.
“You ready to go in?” said Donna, opening the rusty gate.
The cowboys had gathered about twenty-five calves at one end of the rectangular pen, whilst all those on foot stood waiting at the other. On the left: a trestle table with a tray of enchiladas, blueberry muffins, and a bucket for the calves’ testicles to go in. Gary was to be one of the castraters today.
“Ugh, I’m always on castrating,” he said, “Ever since I can remember.”
A pretty girl with blonde plaits and a bobble hat was poised with two big syringes, and a big guy in a hoodie waited with an electric brand. There was a knife-sharpener on hand, too. All three cowboys worked at once, pacing the end of the pen, swinging their loops once, twice overhead, then roping a calf’s heels with perfect aim. One of these ropers was Wyatt, Gary’s grandson. When I spoke to him later, he was clear-faced, quiet, and humble. He never mentioned that he was Colorado’s State Champion roper, or that he’d been to the High School National Finals, but his belt buckle and his prize saddle did the talking for him. The other ropers were Wyatt’s father (Waco), and Gilbert, a born-and-raised Colorado boy whose parents moved from Mexico to America in their twenties.
It didn’t take long. Waco heeled a calf, then looped the rope around the horn of his saddle, quick as a flash, and dragged the calf up to the rest of us by its hind legs. It slid along on its stomach, front legs out long, as it called quietly to the others. It didn’t seem to be in pain at all, just a little confused about why it was moving backwards. Then, a girl in a green cap ran in and grabbed the rope, whilst an older man lifted the calf by its tail. They flipped the calf onto its side and removed the rope. The man pinned its stocky neck with his knee. The girl sat on the floor behind its tail. She pulled the top leg towards her, and pushed the bottom leg with her left foot. Her right foot was over the calf’s bottom (just in case).
No castration necessary for this heifer. The girl in the bobble hat gave it shots in its shoulder, then the hot brand was pressed onto its flank. Yellowish smoke billowed softly around the wound while the brand was rocked back and forth to make sure it got all the detail. The flankers nodded at each other, and the calf was released. The whole thing was over in under a minute. The man offered a hand to the sitting girl, who took it and dusted off the seat of her jeans. Job done.
It couldn’t have been more different from the branding I saw in Spain. There, a wood fire heated heavy iron brands. Each animal was branded up to six times, with the family brand, the government brand, the year of birth, and all the digits of its identification number. Here in Colorado, each calf carries only one brand. State law dictates that cattle, sheep, and goats, must be branded as proof of ownership. Ranches must register their brand with the government, and, as more and more new brands come into existence, they must become increasingly complex in order to be individual. Older, simpler brands are sold for a few hundred dollars. This ranch’s brand was three characters (two letters, underlined). If we’d done it old school, that would take three branding irons: much more time, stress, and pain for the calf. With the electric iron, all three characters sit together, woven in the hot wire at the end of a yellow cable.
Aside from the brands themselves, the method for holding the calf is different too. Spanish people can’t rope. The cowboys were shocked and appalled at this news. “How do they get their calves?”, “What if there’s a sick one!” The answer: chutes. But, with one calf in the chute at a time, it takes all afternoon to brand thirty calves. In Colorado, you’ll do thirty calves in thirty minutes, then bring in the next batch. There are always several calves on the ground at once - the three ropers working tirelessly, and everyone else eager to flank.
Soon, Gilbert’s horse strode in with a small bull and apparently I was up.
“Morgan!” shouts Garett to the flanker in the green cap, “Show her what to do.”
So, I lifted the rope and dipped under it, used my boot to halt the potential muck, and held on to the leg as hard as I could. The calf was very little, the first I’ve seen with a white fluffy belly. First the shots, then the brand, the smell of burnt hair and skin, then a man leaned in with his knife. He was already holding some testicles in his left hand. He set those down on the calf’s ribs, cut off the bottom of the sack, then pressed the calf’s belly to move its balls out through the hole. The blood dripped onto my boot. The man squirted disinfectant into the wound, Garett nodded at me, and I let go. The calf trotted back to its friends as if nothing had happened.
Even though it was, in a way, gorier than what I’d seen before, it wasn’t unsettling. The knife was so sharp, the surgeon so experienced, that it was over in a moment. The calf hardly struggled. He stayed almost quiet throughout. That was the difference, I think: the calf wasn't distressed, so neither was I. That, and the fact that I’ve been at this a while now. I went to my first branding only two days into this journey. I was fresh out of a university where eating meat was contentious, let alone branding it. Since then, I’ve seen trickles of blood and moments of cruelty, but it’s clear that those aren’t always the same thing. Yesterday was one such day.
With three batches of calves done, the whole group up and moved to the host’s house, where yet more calves awaited their mark. I spotted a calf leaning out of the back of a pick up on the way over. The sun came out, beers were cracked open, and people switched roles. Now Waco and Gilbert were flanking too, each with a can of Bud Light in hand. A couple of dogs appeared out of nowhere, weaving their way amongst the kids, scouting about for tickles and inspecting the bucket of testicles. I’m sure the dogs would tell you they’re delicious. When they’re deep fried and called Rocky Mountain Oysters, humans would agree. I didn’t find out today. Instead, our host treated us all to the most locally-farmed beef there is. I caught up with Bella over a slice of cherry pie; she’d been out riding over a wheat field with Prestley, teaching her horse to jump the irrigation ditches. She bet Donna she wouldn’t fall asleep in the car home, but the warm car and the wide, yellow landscape has a habit of lulling your eyes to gently close as you roll along in the backseat. It was a good day.
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