A day of branding is not simply a day of branding. Nobody sat me down and told me what to expect. Nobody even warned me that we were beginning. So here we are, 8 of us all in the corral with the entire herd that we spent two days moving there. It’s unusually cloudy and breezy, we’re setting things up, just built a fire to heat the irons… and suddenly Joe rides over on his horse, dragging a calf over by the hind legs. The calf’s mother is following, and as Keith gets on the calf, that mother starts nudging him with her horns! Usually the mothers are bluffing but this one was not. What a great one to start out with…! I was frozen in shock and fear. They were holding down this bawling calf, yelling for vaccine, ear tag, etc. There was so much commotion. I didn’t have time to think about anything and before I knew it I was jabbing a needle into a calf, giving it a vaccine. That wasn’t too bad, and I decided that would be my job for the day. Aaaand then Eric put a pocket knife in my hand and said to make the ear slit. I didn’t want to, but it was an instruction, not a question. He told me to stab the middle of the ear and slide the knife out to the ear tip, so I did and I felt sick. Then I watched Eric castrate the next calf that I was holding down, and I felt sicker. And then Eric put the dang testicles in my shirt pocket with my chapstick, and I felt sicker yet. I watched the calf twitch and bawl as the scalding irons burned its ribcage, and I smelled the unforgettable scent of burning fur.
I have a strong stomach and wouldn’t say I’m overly compassionate, but my heart was pounding. I felt like throwing up at the sight of all the blood, the burning flesh, the smoking fur, and from the fear of getting charged from behind by a mother cow or getting kicked in the head by a calf.
Anyway the next thing I know Eric puts the knife in my hand again and tells me to castrate the calf he’s holding. For a fraction of a second I thought “YEAH FUCKING RIGHT!” And then I realized there’s no time to think, the calf is waiting and it needs to be done NOW, not when I decide to stop being a little bitch. So I did it with Eric instructing me. My trembling hands were covered with blood afterward and I rubbed dirt on them to get it off. Eric said not to bother cleaning my hands until we were done. But I was convinced that I sure as heck was not doing another castration so I wiped my hands off right then and there.
Before I knew it I had castrated 4 calves. I very quickly realized that it would not be possible to keep blood off my hands… or pants or boots or spurs or FACE, thanks to Eric’s great sense of humor. I started getting into the swing of things slightly. I wouldn’t say it got easier, but I felt slightly less like puking as we did calf after calf.
Eventually Keith told me it was my turn to flank a calf (get it on the ground). So Joe pulled over a black calf who was standing upright with the rope was around his hind legs. Keith instructed me to walk down the rope and grab a hold of the calf’s tail and yank it down. So I did that, but when I yanked on the tail nothing happened. So I yanked again, and nothing. This was a large calf. So I tried again and the calf started running, so I’m running after it, still holding its tail. Then I lose my grip on the tail and they’re yelling at me to “get it back, get it back!” At this point I have no intention to get that tail back, I just wanted to get out of the way. Well before I had a chance to escape, the calf changed directions, causing me to get caught up in the rope. You see, the rope is still attached to the calf’s ankles, and to Joe Cannon atop his horse, with me now stuck between the two. Well that calf kept running and I was getting dragged around on the ground. There was so much commotion, I don’t remember seeing anything, but it sounded like Keith and Edward were trying to stop the calf… after what seemed like an eternity of me being dragged around the corral. And then suddenly, I remember seeing the horse’s butt, right above my head. I realized I was right up under Peppi’s hind legs, still stuck on the rope. I closed my eyes and thought “no, no, no.” I covered my head and waited for a blow, and at that moment, the calf and Keith came crashing into me and plowed right over my head. And then I was free! I sprung up and started running away from the madness. The first thing I saw was Sugar’s face, looking very concerned, and I realized our horses were all spooked from the commotion – I was running into more madness! So I ran the other way, finally to a safe spot. Thankfully they didn’t ask me to castrate that guy… I took a moment to regain myself after that near-death situation. That is no exaggeration. Sitting under a horse’s back legs is asking to get kicked in the head and killed. I am incredibly lucky that I got stuck under Peppi’s butt and not Popcorn’s. We were roping off of both horses that day and Popcorn is a kicker. I am also incredibly lucky that Peppi didn’t step on me accidentally and bruise or break my leg, or ankle… or neck. Nothing hurt immediately but later in the day I sure felt as though I got dragged around a corral, and I had quite a colorful rope burn on my arm. I’d take those minor ills any day over a hoof print on my forehead!
Well this was about 2/3 of the way through the afternoon. Next it was my turn to hold the hind legs of the next calf. These calves are much stronger than I ever expected. It takes two people to hold one down. One person kneels on the neck and shoulder. And I don’t mean lean against ‘em… I mean you put your entire body weight, and then some, on this calf’s upper body. Even then, they can throw you off if you don’t balance correctly. That was tough for me to be in that position, to not get thrown off. And remember those branding irons are being used about 2 inches away from your leg. So you can’t let that calf push you into them. If you get thrown off that calf, everyone could get hurt and worse yet, the brand could get ruined. Another person holds the hind legs… with all their strength. Getting kicked by those legs can be serious too. Fucking up is not an option in this business. When the calf is done being branded you both want to let go and scram at the same time to avoid injury also. I got up from this calf too eagerly and probably tripped myself with my own spurs and landed on my knees snack dab on a rock. Cowboy problems.
We branded 14 calves that afternoon, which felt like 100 to me, but is actually a very small number. It’s tradition to throw the testicles in the fire and eat them for lunch, so we did. Nothing goes to waste!
I understand why we do these things to the calves and it’s important that others do too, especially environmentalists and animal rights activists who blindly claim that branding is “inhumane.” You can’t have a successful ranch if you don’t know whose cows are whose, which makes branding and tagging necessary. Calves are castrated because steers are better eating, plus they’re easier to handle that way. These things do not torture or scar a cow for life. We went into that corral today and those calves were springing around like nothing happened. They didn’t see us and cower in fear. And every mother cow in there went through the same thing. I think humans have the tendency to think in human terms… if this happened to you today it would be quite traumatizing, yes. If it happened to you at 4-months, you probably wouldn’t remember. And even then, you must remember that as an infant, humans are 15lbs of helplessness, while these calves weigh over 100lbs. It’s a totally different playing field.
However, this day of branding really affected me, and I don’t feel the same now. This was such an important experience and it bothers me that PEOPLE DON’T KNOW THAT THIS HAPPENS. That people do this. Today. By hand. THIS IS WHERE BEEF COMES FROM. McDonalds hamburgers… someone had to brand that cow. Even those cows begin on family ranches like this. (Some of our cows are finished here as grass-fed, but some get sold at the auction and go who-knows-where. YOU may have eaten a Cold Creek cow for all I know.) When I closed my eyes last night all I could see was blood. And I didn’t feel as though I deserved to eat our beef dinner, since branding has shaken me so much. It’s not exactly something I want to do again, and that right there, to me, says that I don’t deserve to eat beef… if I’m not willing to do what it takes for that meat to land on my plate. I guess that’s why we pay other people to do it and keep quiet about it all. I stayed up late discussing this with Eric and he said it’s good that I’m at least questioning these things and understanding the intensity of this business, that’s more than a lot of people can say.
Where I grew up, beef came from the store. Yeah, I guess it came from a cow too. But I never thought a minute more about it all. The more I do on this ranch the more my idea of it all changes… I see what these cows and these ranchers go through to make the magic happen.