I don’t know if this would be of any interest to anybody. A vegetarian friend of mine recently asked about the branding process, being interested, as she typically is, in animal welfare. This was not the first question about ranch animals that she asked me. Her naivety got me thinking about the time I spent working on a ranch, and what I saw. Looking back, I see that I’ve bore witness to some strange things, and until now, I sort of took them for granted. Strange and gross things. Almost always both at the same time.
Anyway, I don’t profess to be an expert. I’m pretty far from it. I certainly don’t have the expertise of some of the older ranch-hands, who could, I imagine, tell some incredible stories. I worked for close to three years, intermittently, for small family ranches in Montana, doing just about everything that needed done.
If anybody has any questions, please feel free to ask. Here’s my reply to my friend, which sort of jump-started my recent wave of nostalgia:
Cattle of branding age are gathered into a large pen. From there, they are taken, five to ten at a time, into a smaller pen that is approximately twenty-by-twenty feet. The workers doing the herding are usually pubescent children, who pass the time by riding on the backs of the calves, pretending that they were at a rodeo.
One at a time, the calves are loaded into a long wooden chute. This is sometimes difficult for the young ranch-hands who were in charge of the herd. Calves are obstinate animals. They do not care about being pushed or prodded. Moving them into the chute, which requires moving them up a small incline, involves a lot of pushing. Sometimes the ranch-hands will grab the calves’ tails around the mid-section and pull it forward toward the their heads, and the calves, wanting to relieve themselves of this pressure, will move forward. Sometimes the calves didn’t pay attention. When they don’t pay attention, the ranch-hands may slap them on the butt with a plastic cane. Afterward, they are more amenable to taking direction.
The calves walk through the chute until they came to a device that looks like this. The right side of the contraption, as it appears to you in the picture, is the rear of the cattle chute. The cattle are pushed, one at a time, into the chute, and the rear gate, marked by the horizontal bars, slides inward to keep them from moving backward. The body of the chute consists of the two vertical planes (of which only one is really visible in the picture, as a wall-like thing with a solid bottom and an open top) that intersect with a platform (the floor of the chute) to create a triangular shape.Here’s another angle of a similar device.
Notice how the front of the cattle chute has a narrow, slitted opening. Generally, at this stage, the two slits are a little more parted. The calf walks forward, thinking that it’s going to walk through the opening, and when its head is stuck through the slit, one of the ranch-hands outside of the pen, the one who’ll be doing the branding and castration, pulls a crank and closes the slits around the calf’s head. It looks like this.
From here, it can vary a little depending on the type of cattle chute you’re using. The calf can remain standing upright through the whole procedure, or the body of the chute can be rotated into a horizontal position, so that the calf is lying on its side. I prefer the latter, as sometimes when you’re branding, the calf’s legs will buckle.
In either case, the bars that divide the upper section of the chute’s body can be unlocked and allowed to fall so that the ranch-hand has clear and easy access to the calf.
At this point, if the ranch-hand is castrating the calves, he’ll use a scalpel to create an incision in the hide that protects the testicular area. He’ll draw from this opening a single testicle and use the scalpel to cut it free. He’ll do the same with the remaining testicle. Often times the testicles will be given to the ranch dogs to eat. If a dog isn’t around, they’re thrown away. The ranch-hand splashes some disinfectant on the incision and the castration is done. The calf is remarkably sedate throughout the entire process.
When the calf is branded, the ranch-hand needs at least one assistant to keep the animal from writhing too strongly against the chute. Whereas the castration seems to cause very little pain, branding is something that causes the calf a considerable amount of anguish, and if not pinned into the chute by another person, it can buck around and make the branding process dangerous and messy for the main ranch-hand. Calves have even been known to work one of their hind legs through the opening in the top of the chute and kick the offending ranch-hand in the chest. If the calf works his leg free from the chute, as often happens with larger calves, before the branding is complete or nearly complete, the ranch-hand’s assistant will sometimes lasso the leg and keep it stretched taut to keep anything or anybody from being kicked.
The ranch-hand doing the branding retrieves the brand, which has been sitting above a propane flame that’s ensconced in a small barrel. The housing device looks a little like a barbeque grill. It’s important that the brand isn’t too hot. If it’s too hot, or the ranch-hand is inexperienced and applies too much pressure during the branding, the calf’s skin can split open. Sometimes this can depend on the calf itself. Anywa, the ranch-hand applies the brand, which takes less then five seconds, I’d wager. During this, the calf makes a squalling noise and bucks around. A quarter of the calves shit themselves. Afterward, however, when the calves have been rotated back into a standing position and been let loose into a large pen, they’ll amble off – a little stiffly, naturally – and have forgotten the whole thing within ten minutes. Or as near as I can tell, they’ve forgotten. They’ll resume standing around, eating grass. They’ll give no outward indication that they’ve been through something traumatic.
This process continues until all of the cattle have been branded.