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Crestone Eagle, June 2002:
Ranchin’ Rhythms: Branding
text and photos by Matie Belle Lakish
winds whip up the dust raised by hundreds of pounding hooves.
Horses and riders circle and turn, while the well trained
collies dart, and the bull whip cracks—first to the
left and then to the right. Rounding up the herd of cows and
their calves is a dusty job on this dry, windy day. Afterward,
cowboys sort off the calves into a long alley where they wait,
calling for their mothers. The cows' deeper voices respond
from an adjacent corral.
At two to three months old, the calves now weigh as much
as a large man. Soon they and their mothers will head for
summer pasture in the mountains, and they must be ready. That
means branding, vaccinating, tagging, and dehorning.
Peggy Godfrey and I enter a pen with three bulls, and dip
our bandannas in the watering trough before stretching them
across our noses. Already, the gale-like winds are whipping
fine sand into our eyes, as we head into the branding corral.
A loud whoosh and thundering hoofs! Startled, I narrowly
dodge a horse and rider—my first lesson in "stay
out of the way". Behind the horse, a taut lariat drags
a startled calf. Two cowboys wrangle the calf to the ground,
one pinning its head and shoulders to the ground while the
other secures the back legs. Then three other cow hands surround
it, carrying branding irons, ear tags, and syringes.
Some people feel that branding is a cruel and archaic method
of marking cattle, so I ask Peggy why it is still used. Branding,
she tells me, is the only reliable way to tell who owns the
calf. "Unbranded calves are like $100 dollar bills dropped
on the sidewalk. Whoever finds them claims them." Rustlers
(yes, they still exist) can easily switch ear tags and have
been known to alter brands. And since the mountain pastures
are shared among several ranchers, the brands will be the
only reliable way to sort out the cattle in the fall.
Each ranch owns one or more unique brands, which are registered
with the state, and must be witnessed by official brand inspectors
when cattle are sold. The Slash L D Ranch, owned by Skip Crowe,
owns several brands. /LD is being used today, and requires
three irons to execute.
There is an art to proper branding, and it starts with a
hot iron. Open wood fires are seldom used to heat the irons
anymore, and the brand heater being used today runs on propane.
It resembles a long tubular furnace with an intense blue flame,
and is open on one side to accept the irons. A rack supports
two sets of branding irons and four dehorning irons. If the
branding irons are too cool, it will take longer to get an
effective brand, and will prolong the calf’s misery.
Any conscientious rancher will try to keep the irons hot,
but the gale-force winds are playing havoc with the flame.
Like humans, cattle are subject to diseases that can be controlled
by vaccination. Today both cows and calves will receive updated
vaccinations, and if they show signs of illness, they are
doctored. Numbered ear tags identify each cow and assist ranchers
in keeping accurate records on their livestock. Calves receive
a green tag with the ranch brand, which helps distinguish
Slash LD stock when they are in the high summer pastures of
Saguache Park among other rancher's cattle.
Dehorning is also done with hot irons. A small, round cup-like
iron fits precisely over a horn bud, and cauterizes the growth
tissue. A hot iron and Dave Stagner's skilled hands do the
job quickly and efficiently.
Back in the corral, I snuggle up to the fence, camera in
hand, and try to take it all in. Only a few calves are allowed
into the roping corral at once. Two cowboys on horseback circle
the corral, waiting for the right time to throw a loop just
in front of the calf’s hind feet. Then with the slightest
twist of hand, they pull the loop taut, catching the calf
by the hind legs and pulling it toward the wranglers. One
wrangler grabs the rope, and another the tail, and together
they turn the calf onto the ground. Then using his own legs
as levers, one cowboy pins the calf’s hindquarters into
position, while the second cowboy pushes the front shoulders
and head down, then leans his knee into the calf’s neck
while keeping the calf’s foreleg bent. With experienced
fingers, he feels among the forelocks. "Horns",
he announces, if he finds them. In the meantime, Peggy with
her “vaccination pistols" delivers one shot under
each foreleg. Charlie Mondragon uses a special tool to quickly
insert an ear tag, and then a cowboy with two branding irons
arrives. They are hot, and the calf bawls as the irons are
pressed into its hide, and an acrid smoke arises. A third
iron completes the brand, and Dave dispatches the horns as
the wrangler moves the head into proper position. In less
than two minutes, the stunned calf is on his feet, and sent
into another pen to wait for his mother.
This is the fifth day of branding, and the men have worked
out their routines. By 11:45 they have finished branding the
calves. Skip invites me to join them at the dinner Judy Bunker
has prepared, and I am glad to accept. Over mountains of roasted
turkey, corn bread stuffing, home made pickles and hot rolls
we talk about the drought and the wind and the prospects of
rain. The men joke about helping Judy with the dishes instead
of working outside, while Skip ponders his manpower for the
next day. But in the end, they all drive back into the dust
cloud to vaccinate the cows and move them back to the pasture
with their calves, where the young ones will salve their wounds
with mother's milk.
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