After I got back in the saddle again after 20 years and Dublin earned his dinner with some excellent cow dogging, it was finally time to tie up the horses, put the dogs in the truck, and get to the business of branding.
The sound of 300 cows in close proximity is a thing to behold. They’re quite vocal.
After the trailers were in place blocking off the corral from the pastures and some trucks were backed in to provide a staging ground for some cold drinks and medicine, Rob Taylor got the giant propane tanks out and hooked up the torches to his custom built branding iron ovens. One or two torches are set to shoot a flame down the length of the oven heating up the cold brands and keeping the hot brands warm. The branders would come over every few minutes and rotate the irons so that they were all primed for the job.
The torches roar like mini jet engines and you can feel the heat from the irons several feet away. The crust on top of the ovens is left over “Rocky Mountain Oysters” which were gently cooked for the greenhorns to eat on their first branding. I umm…. couldn’t break my diet, so I didn’t sample the super fresh, lightly seared balls. Maybe next time.
Once the brands were hot and ready, the ropers got to work singling out the calves and getting a rope around them.
Once the calves are roped, they are walked or dragged back to the line of wrestlers, injectors, castrators, and branders.
Two generations separated these two ropers but both women were excellent practitioners and the one on the right was my mentor for the day. She just graduated high school the evening before but there wasn’t a job that she couldn’t handle with deftness and ease. That lovely horse she’s riding was her graduation present and this was their first time working together. You wouldn’t have known it if you weren’t told.
The ropers would drag the calves back through the line of wrestlers until the calves were pinned and the rope freed. They’d then carefully navigate back through the line avoiding the branders, med team, and wrestlers flipping calves. Well trained horses and expert riders resulted in a day with no injuries, except to the pride of the little boy calves.
The wrestlers worked in teams, one head the other tail, and the head wrestler would run his hands down the rope and get a hold on the front leg and another hand down in the groin, the tail wrestler would go for the outside leg and lift it in the air to aid in the gentle tipping of the calf.
The header would then roll the calf up and lower it down his legs until it was resting on the ground where they’d pin the neck down with a knee, free the rope, and pull the front hoof up close and curled to keep the calf still. The tail wrestler would keep a hold on that one leg and then sit down with the calf. A pointed foot on the end of an outstretched leg is enough to immobilize the calf’s leg against the ground and the other foot is placed strategically over the calf’s anus to prevent any blowback when the branding iron hits flesh. It’s much better that the bottom of your shoe takes the hit than to get some velocity splatter in the face. Sick calves also have loose stool so if they void while branding they get an extra shot. I was lucky to have all healthy and undisturbed calves all day and my shoe only had to take one impact from a recycled sun and grass rocket from a calf who wasn’t even being branded at the time.
The female calves got two shots and the males got three, plus a shot of iodine on the incision to their scrotum. After each shot, one of the children would mark the back of the calf with a brightly colored pigment so that the team of injectors wouldn’t double dose or miss any of the calves as they weaved between the wrestlers.
The smell of the burning hair isn’t nearly as horrible as everyone warned me, but as a tail wrestler you do get a face full of it almost every time. Apparently the hair on my face collected the scent and when I had my first drink after a group of calves I licked my lips and got to relive the experience all over. It might not smell all that horrible but it certainly tastes awful.
The castration is perhaps the most technical job at the branding but of all the calves I wrestled not one seemed to even notice that their manhood was being removed. The surgery is fast and efficient and there’s almost a clockwork rhythm to it.
This looks incredibly painful from the guy’s point of view, but I never had a calf so much as flinch. I’d be screaming my head off, but then again, I’ve had three decades to become quite attached to the fellas.
Here you can see both the knife and the clamp used in the castrations. Although the wrestlers could take a break and other wrestlers could take their place, the castrators were busy almost the entire time. It wasn’t until a string of female calves at the end of the branding that I managed to get a shot of Lady Ball Cutter in a quiet moment.
Although I looked like a complete doofus the entire time, the locals made it all look easy. There’d often be four to six people working on a single calf at once, two wrestlers, one or two branders, the castrator, the injector and the marker. The boy calves could see the work of 12 people in under a minute from roping to marking.
Here’s one of my turns as a wrestler, being sure to block the poop chute with my shoe to avoid a little payback from the calf.
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