Once we got the cattle into the corrals, then the real fun began. And by fun I mean a couple days of hysterical bellowing. Oh, and I imagine the cattle were frightened too. (For part 1 click here.)
The first thing we needed to do was separate, or “cut” the cows away from the calves. You had to do this before you could brand the calves, unless you wanted a pissed-off mama cow goring you.
Once we had all the unbranded calves alone in a pen, we could start the branding process. To heat the branding irons, we used a metal box with the front cut out and an opening cut into the side. The front opening was where we set the branding irons to heat up. Our heat source was a propane bottle attached to a sort of metal nozzle that turned into quite the blow torch when you lit it up.
As I mentioned earlier, none of us had roping horses or knew crap about roping from horse back so we mostly did the branding on foot unless we had hired some real cowboys to help us. Some of the little calves you could just grab, but most of the time we had to get a rope on them. The best way to do this was to “heel” them, which means getting the rope around their hind legs. Once you do that it’s pretty easy to drag them away from the others for branding.
The problem with heeling was, once again, that we mostly all sucked at roping and heeling is kind of hard. You don’t just throw the loop of your rope on the ground and hope something comes along and steps in it. You’ve gotta throw the loop down in such a way that it rests partway on the ground and partway up against the calf’s legs. Then, when the calf moves, he can’t help but step into your loop. When that happens, you jerk the rope up and tug on it at the same time and voila! you’ve caught your prey by the legs.
Unless the calf moves away from the loop instead of stepping into it. Or you mistime your tug on the rope. Or, most commonly, you just can’t get that stupid rope to go where you want it to. Often we just had to settle for trying to rope the calf around the neck and even there we were pretty pathetic.
Once you had the calf on the rope and dragged over to where you wanted it, you had to “flank” the calf. Flank just means throw the calf on the ground. Doesn’t sound too hard, does it? After all, most of the calves were less than a month old.
Yeah, except that after just a few days those calves are surprisingly strong and they can kick the snot out of you. There’s a real technique to flanking a calf. One of our favorite forms of entertainment on Date Creek Ranch was watching a novice flank a calf. (We fairly often had visiting friends who wanted to be part of the glamor of roundup.) Half the time they’d end up clinging to the calf for dear life while it dragged them around the corral and we laughed. Good times.
Basically, flanking involves bending over the calf, grabbing it with one hand by the flap of skin just in front of the hindquarters, and with the other hand either the front leg or just behind the leg. Then, you give the animal a quick jerk upwards while simultaneously pushing forward with your knees. This gets the animal off the ground and flips them on their side.
As the calf hits the ground you have to quickly put one knee on its neck, while grabbing its front leg, bending it up and pulling it toward you. Do this part wrong and the animal throws you off or kicks the crap out of you with its hind legs. Do it right and the calf can’t get up or kick you.
To fully immobilize the calf, someone else has to jump down and grab the hind legs. The trick there is to grab the top leg with both hands and lean back, while at the same time hooking the heel of your boot onto the back of the bottom leg, just above the joint in the middle of the leg. An experienced team can flank and immobilize a calf in just a few seconds.
Inevitably, there were a few calves that had been born late enough that we missed them on the previous roundup, which meant they could be as much as six months old. A calf that age is big and a heckuva lot stronger than a person. That’s when technique is absolutely vital. I remember flanking calves that came up to my chest, so big I could just barely reach over them and get a hold. But if I could get that hold, the calf was going down. It was something all of us kids could do and do well. We didn’t really have much choice as Dad had no tolerance for excuses when it came time to get the work done. That calf is three times your size? Quit complaining and get in there and put it on the ground. And hurry up!
Then it’s time for the branding. The irons have to be just right. Too cool and the brand won’t take. Too hot and you can burn through the skin. While we had them down we also gave them a vaccination and an earmark. The brand is legal proof the animal is yours. The earmark is notches cut into the animal’s ears for quick identification out on the range. If an animal is in a herd with others or the side with the brand is turned away from you, the earmark is a handy secondary form of identification.
Finally, if they were bull calves we castrated them. This was the dogs’ favorite part. They skulked around the corrals waiting, knowing Dad would toss them those tasty morsels once he cut them off. We ate them ourselves a few times—cooked, of course—they call them Rocky Mountain oysters. They weren’t bad, but a little chewy.
We castrated them so they would put on more fat and less muscle. Also, without all that nasty testosterone flooding their systems they were much more docile.
(Author’s note: If all this sounds cruel to you, I agree. My father was old school, which meant that considerations about the animals’ feelings did not factor in. There was a job to be done and it would be done, by whatever means necessary. But there were also times when a cow had clearly outlived her usefulness but for whatever reason he’d developed an attachment to her and so she didn’t get sent to the auction to be butchered for dog food. Also, I believe that the worst part of the branding process for the calves was the fear. Their skins are much thicker and tougher than ours. What would be a really traumatic experience for a person wasn’t for them. Within a couple minutes of letting them up, they seemed back to normal. I never saw any indication that they were favoring the brand. And, finally, we had no real choice. Without those brands anyone could snatch them up and claim them for their own.)