The Crestone Eagle, June 2002:

Ranchin’ Rhythms: Branding

text and photos by Matie Belle Lakish

Dry 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.