This time of year, you're bound to see photos of ranchers branding cattle, along with all those newspaper pictures of graduations and proms. And why not? A photographer can find a picture waiting everywhere, of neighbors helping neighbors, handsome cowboy types with spurs and coiled lariats, little kids wearing Wranglers and big hats. There's smoke and dust rising above corral fences and cattle, and gorgeous girls sporting tighter-than-tight jeans. It's that movie-magic West.
Last Saturday, that's the way it was at our place. One more time, our friends and family rallied to help with the one ranch job we can't do by ourselves -- gathering, sorting, roping and branding several hundred calves in a single day.
In Wyoming and the other Western states where ranching still hangs on, there's a reason for livestock branding. A registered brand is a calf's passport, its legal proof of ownership, allowing cattle to be identified wherever they roam. "Put ‘er on right," I was taught. "She'll wear it all her life." A good "one-iron" livestock brand is highly sought after; it's a simple mark that requires only one tool and a single quick touch of the hot iron to the hide.
A complicated brand like the Triple Triangle Single Heart Seven might look good on a gatepost, but it's useless to a cattle rancher. Even if you could get it on straight, it would take up most of the animal's side and be impossible to read.
On branding day, what a relief to see all the vehicles arrive, bringing our team-roper pals with horses and ropes, relatives and reliable neighbors to vaccinate or ear-tag or fill in anywhere. High school athletes with big smiles and big muscles are especially appreciated: These guys teach the smaller guys, and within a few years the little guys will become the big guys. Some families have helped at our brandings through several generations.
If you get invited to a branding, go! You'll be part of a pageant in a disappearing rural culture, you'll have fun -- and your rancher neighbors can use the help. When it's time to put together a crew, we have to compete with spring yard work, rodeos, track meets and proms. We're glad to see anyone who'll put time aside to help us. Never mind wearing the right garb or getting your picture taken: Just leave your sandals and dogs at home. (And it never hurts to bring a cake.)
Glamour's not the main thing; safety is. We'll have several hundred milling cows and calves, horses and riders with stretched ropes pulling calves across the corral toward calf-wrestlers, people afoot using knives, hot irons, vaccine guns and needles. Our year-after-year helpers laugh a lot and pay attention, looking out for each other.
The rules are simple: Do what you're told, the way you're told to do it.
At most ranches, nobody ropes without being invited to do so, because along with skill, that high-prestige job requires a sixth sense about safety. The roper needs experience with ropes, cattle and people and must ride a seasoned horse -- no rookies allowed.
Second rule: Let the experts handle the branding irons. They in turn appreciate calf-busters who can hold the calf still, so the brand can go on properly. Wrestling calves is as much about balance and position as brawn, and even the ropers take a turn calf busting just to acknowledge the importance of that dirty, tiring job. Safety counts here, too; the guy holding the front legs should always turn loose first. Letting go of a calf at the wrong moment can cause a serious injury for somebody else, whether horseback or afoot.
It's best to drive the cattle into the corral quietly, although last year that didn't happen. The cattle spilled back and we had a roaring-wild event with horses, dogs and cattle galloping all directions. I was annoyed that we so-called professionals allowed such a comedy show, but later I heard the kids saying, "That was the most fun of the whole day! We all got to run our horses, some of them bucked, Jim fell off, and it was just wild. We had a blast!" Whatever. This year, we got the cattle corralled on the first try, and suddenly the day was under way.
When the last calf is branded, I give a private nod of thanks to the Man Upstairs. Now for the keg of beer, tired cowboys carrying plates heaped with food, and stories and laughter. Now for the photographs of hats worn just-so along with spurs and chaps, and little kids riding patient old horses. It's all there, and it's all true. Thanks for coming. See you next year?
Mary Flitner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She ranches near Greybull, Wyoming.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.