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Know the West

Ranch Diaries: Building community in the middle of nowhere

Cattle branding brings together far-flung neighbors in the midst of the "Big Quiet."


Ranch Diaries is an hcn.org series highlighting the experiences of Laura Jean Schneider, who gives us a peek into daily life during the first year of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. Installments are every other Tuesday.

Establishing a sense of community after relocating to a remote environment has often challenged us, and especially me. Here in The Big Quiet, as I think of it, days go by without us seeing another person. The three-hour round trip drive to town doesn’t leave much time to go out after a workday, and the spotty cell phone service makes connecting with friends and neighbors difficult. Sometimes I realize a week has passed and the only person I’ve spoken to is Sam. It’s a good thing we’re both people who do well with lots of solitary time. But every once in awhile, we really miss having people closer.


Since we rarely have visitors, it was exciting to have our LLC partners and their families come help gather cows and calves for our first Triangle P branding three weeks ago. Our nearest neighbor, who manages the Mescalero Apache Tribe’s cattle operation, also came from an hour away with two of his young sons to help. Once we reached the pens near our house, we sorted off most of the cows––it’s easier to rope calves in a pen without cows in the way––and gathered a few calves that had ducked through the fence. There was a scramble of activity as people filled syringes with vaccines and started the fire to heat our branding irons. (Like many ranchers, we also use branding as an opportunity to give our calves their first set of vaccinations to help prevent diseases.) We dug applicators and ear tags—red for steer calves, white for heifers—out of boxes, and lugged jugs of water into the corral so thirsty workers had a drink handy. The riders who were first to rope tightened their cinches and got their horses ready.

New Mexico state law mandates that ranchers brand their cattle for identification purposes, but it’s more than just a legal procedure. There’s a certain camaraderie that accompanies brandings. Getting together with friends and neighbors is a good way to forget about feeling lonesome. Regardless of political views, age or background, we can all agree on one thing: a job needs to be done. Roping calves horseback to brand is physically demanding work that requires lots of skill, but it’s easier on the cattle and crew than other methods of branding, like forcing calves through mechanical squeeze chutes, which necessitates a more lengthy, stressful, separation of mother cows and calves. When we haven’t had corrals available close to the herd in the past, we often held up a bunch of cattle outside in the pasture and roped calves out of the herd, their mothers right next to them through the whole process.

 Once a roper catches a calf by its hind legs, or “heels” it, and drags it to the fire, the calf is stretched out on its side. Then the ground crew administers vaccines, the hot branding irons, earmarks (a permanent notch in the ear for identification) and castrates the bull calves. We use two separate irons for the “Triangle P” brand, applied like stamps, or a curved running iron, which is drawn across the hide to prevent blotching. With everyone working together, we gathered several pastures and sorted and branded 134 calves in a day and a half.

Since our spring work started, the past few weeks on the ranch have involved more interactions with other people than Sam and I have had in the last five months combined. With our partners' families here, our camp swelled to 16. It was great to catch up with an old neighbor from Luna, New Mexico when he helped us gather our steers and move them south last month. That same week, we squeezed around our tiny camper table with green chile cheeseburgers and swapped tales about rank bulls and good horses with the cowboy who’s helping watch the steers in their new pasture.

For our most recent branding last Sunday, two friends who’d driven nearly three hours to help us gather and brand another 80 calves made a round of cold beers on the porch afterwards all the more refreshing. But when the trucks and horse trailers had pulled out and the last cow had paired back up with her newly branded calf, I felt loneliness settle in our camper. How long, I wondered, until we see people again? How long until we get that feeling of community back?

I have to trust that our community is always there, whether it’s a familiar face sitting across our campfire or a letter in our post office box. Now our community sprawls all over the state and beyond, a constellation defined by small towns and ranchland. They’re people who care, good hands willing to make the long trek out to pitch in, or give us a call to see how we’re holding up. We couldn’t do our job without the knowledge that these friends and neighbors believe in what we’re doing. That makes the long, quiet, in-between times a little easier to handle.