Of Germanic origin; related to German Brand, also to burn. The verb sense ‘mark with a hot iron’ dates from late Middle English, giving rise to the noun sense ‘a mark of ownership’.
Well, here in the West they still think of it in the Germanic or Middle English sense of the word, even if the iron is electric; and this spring I got the chance to film and experience it up close.
Having spent some days shooting for Arctic Cat with Idaho riders Rob Kincaid and Dave McClure, who are some of the best people I have hung out with in the mountains, and good old Idaho boys; Dave grew up in Swan Valley, and Rob has at least lived in Idaho almost long enough to loose the Midwest accent from where he’s from, or at least meld it into something all its own.
Of course being a suburban kid I wanted to hang out to work on becoming more country, as I’ve and have thoughts of, but never followed though, changing gears for a summer to live the romantic cowboy life. In reality people are just people, but they do have some fun days that are quite different from my life in the outdoors.
Rob, not originally from the west would call himself a redneck not a cowboy, something his cowboy friends tease him about and then he replies that they can rope the cattle and when they need it, he’ll “put on my flat brimmed hat and deal with the sleds”. So when it comes time to brand his cattle, or as I would learn any cattle, it becomes a community event where friends get together for a few days each spring, helping each other with the task before their cattle are put out to pasture for the summer.
So from my understanding it works like this… There are cows that you have for breeding, who each year have calves and those calves sped a summer getting big and fat before they are shipped off to become lunch and dinner. At this point if you are angry at me calling them that, then please click on one of my other posts about skiing as its going to get worse and this is the reality until we stop eating beef and these animals wind up relegated to zoos, kept for history lessons about our barbarism as a people in the 21st century.
My adventure started when we were filming late season and each day Rob would go on and on about calving season and all the crazy stuff, like pulling calves out of cows or finding dead ones in the creek. Eventually the conversation turned to the day they would be branded, as that would be the end of his hard work with the cattle and then they’d be sent to live in a field for the summer. Of course interested in experiencing almost anything I remarked that when he did I’d love to come out and film it and take some pictures.
When the day arrived I had to make the tough choice weather to follow through and go to Idaho to see the event, or go to Togwotee to go ski couloirs with my friends; and while I struggled for an hour or so, the choice was clear to go join Rob at his barn and see what this was all about.
Arriving there instantly you could see what a big day this was. The families were all there, the kids were dressed in their best cowboy duds, with hats, chaps and all and there was a ham in the smoker getting ready for lunch.
The process starts with driving the cattle into the pens, where the few cowboys on their horses and Rob jumping around like a crazy person waving his arms with his flat brimmed hat in had herd the cows into the big pen. Then they get into the pens and separate the calves from the cows using brightly colored fiberglass sticks to whack or block the cows, who are mostly agreeable, interesting in avoiding the people and going where they are nudged. The kids are allowed to help with calves, who are still much larger than they are. The next step is to get the cows into the device called the chute, a metal cadges that pins the cow to keep it still while they brand them, put ear tags on the few new ones and give all the animals their shots.
One at a time the cows are herded into a fenced passageway and once they are at the chute a bar is slid in behind them to keep them from going backwards. Everything for the most part is done smoothly as a team, while one or two people get the cow into where it should be; another slides the bar in, when things don’t go smoothly that’s when the fun begins. Either they are chasing the cow that avoided the passageway and is running away into the pen, or maybe the cow somehow winds up going in backwards, or trying to crawl under the fence, either way its fun to watch the choreographed mayhem.
Once in line the cows make their way into the chute, first seeing the opening and going for freedom and then being stopped by a cowboy with impeccable timing who clamps the chute down on them like a giant hand grabbing them and pinning them down, or more accurately clamping them from the sides. The chute has panels that open so the cows can be branded in the right spot, something that is done by the cowboy with the most experience so that a clean brand is achieved.
Here with Rob’s relatively small heard and the experience of his friends, Rob as always takes charge, noting which cow gets what, weather it’s a brand, an ear tag and or some shots, but he only brands a few cattle just for the camera and since he clearly has not done it much before the maker that is supposed to RJK is not all that clean when he does.
Today the branding iron is more like a curling iron mixed with a shovel handle. Plugged into to an extension cord it stays hot in a bucket of rocks they scrape it on to clean of the seared hair that sticks to it. This is smelly, smoky process, where the first press gets mostly hair, sending a thick grey and brownish smoke usually right into the camera. I try not to breath it as I think, “cool”, while it passes over the lens obscuring the shot and lighting up in the sun. The cows certainly do not like this, but who would. After the initial whack with the iron it’s carefully repressed to make the mark defined and legible, the skill coming from leaving a clean brand while the cow bucks in the chute that can only hold it so still. After a few presses the nerve endings are dead there and the cow stops bucking and if necessary the brand can be finished a little easier.
For the most part its done in a couple of goes by a skilled hand, while others give the cow shots and if necessary a tag on the ear, which also needs to be done smoothly with some skill to cause the least amount of pain to the animal. Once they are finished the chute is opened and the cow runs off into another pen, ready for a summer of eating grass and shitting.
One by one this goes on, with some cows being difficult and one in particular that is known to be crazy and mean giving a lot of trouble trying to break the fences and then coming out of the chute wanting to kill us all.
Every now and then the kids get too close to danger and there is a lot for shouting for them to clear out. The whole process is full of energy and has lots of shit going awry, but nothing so much so that it fazes anyone there, as it is all just part of the program, and the fun.
After the big cows are done its time for calves, who are too little for the chute, so they first get roped by the cowboys on horseback who get a lot of shit from everyone there when they miss a few times. Then they are dragged across a to a metal neck clamp that is staked to the ground, and in the mayhem one of the guys drops it onto the neck of the calf. In between that, the rope on one of his hind legs being pulled tight by the horse that stands still holding it, and a with a little help from the cowboys to take its feet out from under it, the calf is pined and stretched out on the ground.
Once its there the poor little guy gets his nuts cut out, definitely the most brutal looking part of the operation and then gets its brand and finally some shots. When the neck clamp misses the fun begins, while the whole team dives on the calf and wrestles it to the ground having to hold it down for the whole process.
Here too Rob does a little branding for the camera, getting a lesson, then getting teased for not doing a good job. The whole time the group of friends that will do Rob’s cows toady and the other on other days are teasing and joking with each other, teaching the older kids to rope and having a good time. They even give me the rope with some explanation and then stand in front of me, lifting their feet mimicking the cow running so I can try to rope their feet.
By they time they are done the ham that has been in an electric smoker all morning is ready for a late lunch and it is served on the back of Robs flatbed, with everyone taking a nice long break, before herding the cows into a few trailers to take them out to the field that they will spend the summer hanging out in.
For the cows it’s a traumatic day, but I’m sure, soon forgotten, with a summer of eating grass and wandering in the beautiful Idaho countryside. For me it was an awesome day, where I didn’t think if the skiing I’d been missing once, and looking back at the images and video, the memories of my first branding has me wanting to experience and even more seriously contemplate living the life of a cowboy, or maybe something like Rob, a redneck with some land and animals.