Ask the former ranch hand

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.

I’ve seen horses branded, and it I’m told doesn’t hurt unless the iron isn’t hot enough, but the timing of how long to apply it is crucial. It certainly never seemed to bother them, the brand was applied for maybe 4 seconds, and at just the point the horse seemed think they might not like it there the brand was withdrawn. Some gave a jump or a kick out afterwards, but there really was no fuss or struggle.

I wonder if some of the calf’s panic is at being held in the chute and immobilized? The horses, mostly foals and weanlings, were done with just someone holding their lead shank, with them standing up against a wall or fence so they couldn’t step sideways too soon. No tranq, no other restraints usually. The difference is that most horses are generally handled from the moment they hit the ground, and are not as a rule frightened by gentle, calm restraint. It’s got to be terrifying for an essentially wild calf to be manhandled like that, away from mama and everything, and they sure do bawl when they’re scared.

What seasons did you work? How did the work vary by season? Did you get around the ranch by horse, ATV or other?

What were some moving or hairy wildlife encounters? Did you ever see/sense Bigfoot? :slight_smile:

Did you ever help at a working dude ranch? Was dealing with guests harder than dealing with the animals?

Thanks for that interesting post. Kinda busy here with limited internet access so no questions from me. Hopefully somebody else will have some.

By the way, did you ever figure out what that “one thing” was? :slight_smile:

I’m certain that being held immobolized plays a role in the calves’ reactions, but from what I saw, it wasn’t a significant factor in how they responded to the brand. They’d give a little whelp when they were flipped onto their side in the chute, but otherwise, even as they’re being castrated, they’re relatively docile. It’s only when they’re being branded that they start squirming and bawling.

Sometimes the calves were born after the main branding session, or were too small to be branded at that time, and when that was the case, they were branded in the field. The ranch-hand would draw them down with a lasso, flip them onto their side, have the brand carried over, and then finish the job while he was sitting on top of them. Their reactions to this method was basically identical to how their siblings reacted while being restrained in the chute.

Their reactions are survival mechanisms, basically. Since they’re too young to defend themselves against wild animals, they’ll bawl loudly, trying to get the attention of their mother or the rest of the herd. When I’ve branded grown cattle, they’ve been a little more dignified about the whole process, flinching a little but otherwise standing there, unmoving. There’s a threshold of pain for calves, I think. They’ll tolerate a little pain, like when they’re being castrated. But when it’s actually significant, and they feel like their lives are in danger, they freak the fuck out.

Incidentally, some of the ranchers were experimenting with freeze-branding at the time of my departure. It’s done with a brand that’s been submerged in liquid nitrogen, and from what I’ve heard, it’s far more humane to the young animals.

I worked during the birthing season, which typically fell between early February and early April. There’s a lot of tedium during birthing season. Since it’s still winter, and since winter in Montana is especially brutal, the pregnant animals needed to be watched at all times. I worked the graveyard shift, sitting in the cab of a truck that was itself sitting in the middle of a dark field, occasionally scanning the herd with a bright electric lantern to make sure that everything was okay. If it’s below freezing and you fail to notice that an animal has given birth, the young animal – it was either a kid (goat), a lamb (sheep), or the calves, depending which herd I was watching at the time – can freeze to death relatively quickly. I’ve seen lambs that were frozen into their afterbirth during difficult winter storm.

Often times, you’ll need to bring the lamb into the house to keep it warm, and if it’s been exposed to the cold for too long, you’ll even put it in the oven. Like, the kitchen oven. I had a fellow ranch-hand tell me one of his lambs caught fire when he turned the oven up too high, but I find that a little difficult to believe, even though he’s a very honest and forthright person. But, who knows?

I also worked the alfalfa harvest season, which came at the end of the summer. This involved driving a pick-up around a field all day, using a mechanism like you see in this picture to pincer a round-bale, place it in the bed of the pick-up, and then deliver it the storing area. Some of my fondest memories are of bombing around through muddy fields in a pick-up truck, seeing how fast I could deliver bales. At the time I felt like I was getting paid to slog through the mud, which was great fun.

Also, I worked as needed, helping during cattle drives or when manual work needed to be done.

It depended on where I was going, really. Mostly, I used a pick-up truck. But during cattle drives, or when I was trying to reach somewhere less accessible, I used an ATV. I’ve never ridden a horse. I’ve never met one that liked me enough to let that happen.

I’ve seen wolves, bears, coyotes, and wild cats. Nothing that was spectacular, really, though I so rarely saw wolves that when I did see them, I always took the time to watch.

There were times that I’d be feeding at night, pitching hay from the back of the truck, when my halogen lamp would reflect off the eyes of a mountain lion prowling at the edges of the woods, which is frightening in, like, fifteen differents ways.

A local ranch had a problem with a bear that was eating the fermented apples that lay rotting on the ground beneath their apple trees. I guess the bear was eating them to get drunk, and he acted like it afterward, toddling uneasily around. He had to be relocated, eventually, when even after the ranch was more diligent about cleaning up after the apples, he still kept returning.

Never saw Bigfoot, unfortunately.

I never worked at a dude ranch, though I have a friend who had worked at one in Washington. I’ll have to ask him about it.

Why branding as opposed to ear tags? I’m probably missing something here, lol. Never known anyone around where I grew up branding cattle, but I also knew farmers, not ranchers.

What do you think of Temple Grandin?