By Jill Richardson
It is a chilly spring morning with frost on the ground and horses kicking in the trailer. Pickups and horse trailers cover all available flat ground. Several cowboys unload and saddle their horses, spend a few minutes with greetings and then ride off into the pastures to round up the cattle. The goal, either that morning or gathered in the days before is to have the cows and calves brought together in a holding pen near the corral.
Once brought in, the calves are separated from the cows, their moms. Like any mom, she’s not a huge fan of her baby being taken away from her for any length of time. And that’s when the bawling starts, between mom and calf. But soon enough, they will soon be reunited and pushed back out to pasture.
As momma cow experienced years before, she knows what is happening on this morning. It is time to brand. She knows that branding day also brings vaccinations, doctoring, and turning baby bulls into steers. In all, she knows that the cowboys call it “working cows.”
Working cattle is a time honored tradition in Idaho and is still done the same way by many local ranchers as it was a century ago. Basic equipment, hard work, sweat, good ranch hands, great horses and long days are the makings of branding day.
As the calves bunch up on one side of the corral together, the cowboys get the equipment ready. Whether it is a hot iron or a freeze brand, there is a system to the process. Vaccination guns are filled and at the ready. Ear taggers with fly tags to repel flies are placed within reach. Branding irons are placed in a central position in the corral, close enough to where the calves will be tethered, but far enough away to not be a danger. Cowboys ready their ropes and take their horses up to the edge of the calves. One man ropes a calf around both hind legs and drags it near the fire towards the center of the corral where the ground crew is waiting, one with an ear tagger, one with a vaccination gun, a knife or a banding gun for castration of the bull calves and one with the iron.
As the day heats up, the heat of the fire is almost unbearable. Yet it is all part of the process and the experience. Most of the people at the branding are doing it to help a fellow rancher and will be paid in good grub and great times, not dollars.
The hot branding iron is quickly brought from the fire to the side of the calf to create the brand of the ranch on the calf. Near simultaneously the smell of burnt hide fills the air, the sound of two testicles plunk the bottom of a bucket or are split open and put directly on the fire for an immediate cowboy snack. A quick cry from the calf and in seconds the process is complete. The calf is released from its hold and returns back to the herd. The process begins again and another calf is roped to be branded.
By the end of the day, the people are hot, sweaty, tired and the calves are ready to return to mom and go to pasture. As the cows and calves join back up, the helping hands will gather for a huge feast, and perhaps a beer or two. With blood stained clothes, dirty faces, and tired bodies they enjoy the feast but nobody really cares about being dirty. It’s all in a day’s work on the ranch. Branding is just another part of ranching.
Locally in Melba, the Nicholson Ranch, owned by Scott and Sherri Nicholson, has been working livestock for over 100 years and still hold their branding in the traditional manner with a more modern twist of freeze branding. Nicholson’s brand is a “bar 96.” The Nicholson’s will hold about twelve brandings per year to get all the calves worked from their 3,000 head of Black Angus cows. They invite trusted cowboys from around the valley to help in the event. To them, it is work that needs to be done but it is also time of old friends coming together for a day or so of good times, hard work and food.
Why do ranchers brand? Cattle are branded to show ownership. When cattle are put out to pasture, they can be identified by their brand legally. Brands are overseen by a division of the Idaho State Police called the State Brand Inspectors.
“The main reason to brand is to know your cattle from the neighbors when they run out on open range,” said Idaho State Deputy Brand Inspector Jim Kennedy, “to show ownership of the livestock.”
Hot iron branding and roping each calf is not the only way to brand. The state of Idaho recognizes both hot iron, from fire, and freeze branding, from liquid nitrogen. Freeze branding makes the hair grow back in as white and clearer to identify, in general. Many ranchers aid the identification of their cattle by marking a notch in the ear or cutting a chunk from the waddle under the neck. Instead of roping each calf, some ranches will send the calves down alleyways and into the chute where there are snugged down with metal gates on either side to prevent movement and then go through the same process of branding, doctoring and inspecting.
According to state law, every person raising cattle needs to have a brand registered with the state, whether they use it on their cow is up to them. Idaho has 22,000 to 23,000 registered brands. “You are only limited by your imagination, when it comes to creating your unique brand,” said Kennedy.
Brandings, in Idaho, generally take place in the spring but can be any time of the year depending on when the calves are born. Ranchers will brand the calves at various stages of growth, but basically it is at the time and size that works for that ranch, old enough to handle but not too big where it makes it hard. Brands can be on the right or left side of the calf but only on the shoulder, ribs or hips. No neck or new jaw brands are recognized in Idaho.
Branding cattle hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years nor is there an expected change in the future. If you ever get a chance to attend one, it is an experience not adequately described with words. It is a wonderful experience of the relationship between man and animal, man and nature as well as man to man.