Have you ever been to a branding?
Hey there BJ,
How was your Valentines Day?
Ours was great!
After a long-day's work Chris and I had a lovely grass-finished beef wellington for dinner with some cheap red wine, and good conversation- solving all the world's problems by the wood stove.
Life sure is good!
What did you do?
I hope it was a LOVEly experience, no matter what you ended up doing!
Speaking of lovely experiences...
Have you ever been to a calf branding BJ?
Out here in the Laramie Valley, it is a common thing that most people have at least been to one branding in their lifetime. Growing up, Chris and his little brother and friends had gone to several calf brandings for families of kids they attended high school with.
There is a job for everyone at a branding. Brandings can be fun community events- making short work of a very large job!
At some of the largest brandings Chris and I have been to, the whole group doctored and branded a couple hundred calves in an afternoon! That would take a week for 1 or 2 people to do by themselves...
So, why am I bringing this up?
This past week on Instagram I posted about our recent day of helping the Rardins at their calf branding and I got A TON of questions about it, which was great!
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In case you are curious about the branding process, I have put together a narrative about Calf Branding for ya:
What it is, Why we do it, and How it works.
I hope you enjoy!
First off, a cattle brand is a unique marking applied to an animals hide with a hot iron. When done correctly it's quick, and permanent because it causes the hair in that particular spot, not to grow back. This creates a mark in the shape of the brand for the animal's lifetime. Each brand-owner has their brand registered so that they become the sole, legal owner of that brand in the state.
Some folks on social media seem to view branding as a cruel and unnecessary practice, so I want to break it down for you to help you understand Why and How we brand cattle.
Livestock theft is still surprisingly common in the West. The only way to verify ownership in the off chance that cattle are stolen would be a brand. In Wyoming a travel permit (which requires a brand inspection) is required to move livestock across county lines and state lines. If you are pulled over while transporting livestock, and do not have a brand inspection and permit you can have the livestock you are transporting confiscated from you immediately.
Branding cattle is also required by law, for any cattle that will be grazed on public land in the United States. By public land, I mean land technically owned by You and every other US Citizen. This totals 640 million acres, which are managed by the National Forest and Bureau of Land Management in most cases.
Did you know that you own that much land? I think that's pretty neat!
A Brand is also the best way to prove ownership of an animal, since other forms of identification like an ear-tag, can be removed or can fall off on their own.
A Brand Inspector is called to verify cattle brands before a travel permit or transfer of ownership permit can be issued. These Brand Inspectors are employees of the State and they specialize in locating and finding brands- which is not always an easy task!
Some brands include an ear-notch or a tail bob (a shortening of the tail) although these practices are less common now-a-days, and I am glad they are honestly. The less we do to these animals for the sake of identification, the better, in my opinion.
When done correctly, the branding iron numbs the area that is being treated quickly and efficiently and pain is fleeting for the animal. You can tell when the brand is done right because the animal shows minimal signs of discomfort. Pretty amazing considering the process!
There is a lot more to a calf-branding event than just applying the brand. Cattle have to be sorted to increase safety and efficiency.
Watching a quiet and efficient cattle sorter at work is so fun! Animal-human body language is such a neat aspect of what we do. It is truly an art and somewhat of a slow dance to move cattle quietly and efficiently. Good quiet and slow handling makes a HUGE difference in how calm the animals are once we get them to the chute. If they are handled calmly and quietly throughout the day, they go into the chute easily and they have an easy time in the squeeze chute. Chris and I love to watch the Rardins work their cattle. You can tell they have had a lot of practice!
Cowboy movies do the cattle industry a real disservice by creating a false image of how cattle are worked. Whooping and hollering really don't help animals move quickly or efficiently, and rough handling tends to make events like a branding take much longer. Not to mention how animals become scared and dangerous to handle when they are pushed hard and handled with loud shouts, quick and violent arm waving, running and shoving, and loud bangs and clangs.
When animals are handled to rough, it also causes release of the stress hormone cortisol, which creates a bad taste in their meat. This is part of the reason why all of our beef is processed in USDA Plants. The USDA has strict regulations on animal handling , so we can be confident that once the animal arrives at the processing facility, they will be handled in a way that prevents stress and therefore honors the animals, and optimizes meat quality and taste.
Back to branding though.
At some brandings horses are used to rope calves. Calves are roped by the back legs and maneuvered out to a wide area where group of people are ready to hold the calf. This manual containing and holding of the calf is called 'mugging' or 'dogging.' It usually takes 2 people to hold one calf. These calf-muggers hold the calf stretched out so that another person can apply the brand, another person can apply an ear tag, and another person (usually a vet or someone with a lot of experience) can castrate- if the animal is a male that will not be kept for breeding, and another person can administer a vaccine if needed.
This time with the Rardin's though, we branded, tagged, and vaccinated in a squeeze-chute. This eliminated the need for a very large crew and we were able to get the job done with 5 people.
This is what a squeeze chute looks like.
To ask the calf to enter the squeeze chute, we open the back and front doors so it appears to be a nice open pathway back out to the corral. Then, as the calf enters the chute, the back door is closed and the front head-catch is applied before the calf's shoulders leave the chute, to keep the calf in the proper position for us to work.
A squeezing mechanism is applied for added-comfort for the calf. This may be a weird idea to wrap your head around because this isn't very commonly seen, but cattle really like to be squeezed!
Squeezing has a calming affect on them and it keeps their stress low while we work on them despite the unfamiliar smells and movements that happen while we work.
Temple Grandin, world famous animal behavior specialist, made herself a "hug" machine to manage her stress as a college student with autism, after she learned how the squeezing process helped cattle she had seen go into the chute.
You can see a clip of the hug-machine that Temple Grandin designed for children to use, here:
At this point, you may be wondering, why do we apply ear tags?
Most ranchers use ear-tags for identification purposes within the herd on the ranch because they are easier to see and can be used to designate a lot of information. Brands can be difficult to see at times, especially with hairy breeds like Highlands and Galloways.
When cattle are out grazing in a pasture, it can be hard to get very close to them at times. An ear tag helps us identify the gender and identity of individual animals from a distance, and can help us know which cows are mothers to which calves, which individuals need vaccinated, and even how old certain cattle are and which ones are ready to go to the processor.
An ear tag number is also a lot easier to communicate to a co-worker than "you know the fluffy brown one with the long horns?" Haha!
Vaccines are given once or twice a year depending on the age and gender of the animal. Vaccine recommendations are made by a large-animal veterinarian and are geared toward specific strains of viruses in a given region. This can be especially important for animals that will be grazing with other animals, or animals grazing on lands where other livestock and wildlife have been. Disease prevention is a top priority for cattle ranchers because it prevents the need for antibiotics and it also prevents animal discomfort, extra handling, and stress.
Male animals are castrated, mostly for safety- as large bulls or male cattle can be aggressive and destructive to infrastructure such as fencing, vehicles, and corrals, and a large group of hormone-enriched males can even be dangerous to other animals in the herd. This is why most cattle ranches usually only keep a ratio of one bull for several cows- for breeding purposes.
Rocky Mountain Oysters are a delicacy often enjoyed when the work is done, along with a cold beer. They are pretty tasty, and full of nutrition. Honestly though, after a long day of branding, anything tastes good...
Calf Brandings are a community event around here. Most of them happen in the summertime when the calves are smaller and easier to handle (for safety and efficiency). Some folks in our community we only see once, or a-couple of times a year, at the local brandings. Although it feels like a party, because it is still work, it is a good excuse to get together and catch up. As a thank you for everyone's help, the hosting ranch usually has a nice meal and beverages out for everyone when it's all finished.
There is something special about working with the whole community to accomplish a goal. Everyone has a job to do at a branding and no one job is more important than another. After the work is through, it is a good feeling to sit around and enjoy locally-grown beef burgers with the smell of burnt hair on our clothes, and seeing all of the dust covered faces smiling, chatting, laughing and catching up after months of not seeing each other. It's a unique and meaningful experience that leaves us feeling like we are a part of something bigger.
Every year, I just can't wait for branding season with friends and family!!!
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Thank you for being here!
Thanks for wanting to learn about local food with us!
It's people like you, who care about how their food is raised, that are changing the food system and our world.
Thank you! Until next week!
-BJ, Chris, and the Taste of the Wind Crew