I got to experience my first calf branding the other day. I was unnaturally elated and felt like this was the height of cowboy culture—other than perhaps moving cows by horseback which I am also dying to do.
I am not sure why I went into it so full of pep, as the very words, calf and branding together don’t exactly speak to a lot of joviality. I knew branding would probably be intense but I still wanted to see this iconic ranching experience.
Upon arriving I noted a smell similar to that of being in a dental chair having a cavity drilled. I could see billowing white smoke coming up from the backs of where the calves fur was being singed. Then I noted small trickles of blood coming from both their ears and lower extremities, having just been castrated and dehorned as well. The testicles were then thrown into a Folgers Coffee container. My eyes kept going from Folgers container of testicles to the calves’ eyes. I watched on trying not to get shook-up when they struggled on the calf table.
Every time I could feel myself being slightly taken aback by the very rawness of ranching and that animals would indeed need to experience some pain in their lives—much like us humans—my rancher friend who was castrating, would smile reassuringly when he caught my eye, in a way that seemed like a shrug, what can ya do?
What can ya do, is right? This was the rancher’s job and all of the things taking place needed to be done. For starters, I myself, like almost everyone in America enjoys cheeseburgers; and I know that a cow doesn’t simply lie down and die in a field of daffodils on a dewy morning, only for a rancher to stumble along and go, hey, this would make a fine meal! I happily and blithely enjoy cheeseburgers with no thoughts of the dirty work involved. All that aside… Castration, I learned, prevented inbreeding, or breeding too early and allowed the bulls to focus on their feeding versus breeding. The dehorning had several purposes too, involving safety for the ranchers and the cattle’s ability to move through chutes unencumbered at meat-processing plants.
The calves were given two shots during this process. This is where I got put on in the lineup. Shot detail. I filled up the shots for each new calf about to have his first real-eye opening experience about life in the Wild West, just like I was having my own. I felt helpful in this way, though, and like I was doing something of import and healing for the calves. Every time I got to fill a new vial and see a calf hop off the table, I felt a little better.
They were corralled into a small pen that doubles as a table which flips up. Then the calf is held down with prongs while all the necessities take place. A lot of bellowing goes on and their eyes get slightly bulgy. But the interesting thing about their bellowing is it doesn’t get that loud. I thought, if that were me on the table getting branded and castrated and dehorned, they’d hear me bellowing clear over in Thailand, that’s how much I wouldn’t be having it.
Now here is the really interesting part. Once the calf is let go, he’d hop off the table and scamper away looking no worse for wear. Truly. And all of this is only a couple minute process. Either calves are great pretenders, or they really are quite resilient even if they’re hurting and they simply go back to the business of being young’uns who curiously run around the yard and play or go looking for their mama. I couldn’t believe it. About 97 of the 100 or so calves that were being branded that day all looked right as rain and like nothing at all had just happened to them.
About one looked as if it had gone through some sort of ordeal, while two others had the grandiose notion to perhaps lay in the sun and take a well-deserved nap. If I was a calf, not only would I be the single calf in the herd looking as if I’d just had an ordeal, I would also be the one napping and I would be running and bellowing to my mama about said ordeal. I probably wouldn’t shut up about it for weeks. The other calves would roll their eyes and think I was a pansy-ass. But it’s true. I now knew that one of my “bad” days was nothing in comparison to a calf’s bad day.
I was also informed that sometimes the calves get diarrhea and spew all over whoever happens to be at that end of the table, either brander or herder. My friend told me that one year her young son—who was also helping that day—was standing decently far away on herding patrol and still got diarrhea splattered all over his face. His face. I can’t even… Although her comical response to this, was that it probably boosted his immune system. Ranchers, gotta love ’em.
But all of the shock of what very real ranching and branding looked like aside, I had a whole new appreciation for my cushy life that had hardly touched on real farming, or any truly harrowing experiences. I had never been branded, thank God, but I also had never had to brand anything either.
My day of branding may have been the first day I wasn’t altogether romanced by ranching. But on the tail-end of this sobering thought was that it was okay. I didn’t always have to be romanced by ranching, because like the ranchers had been saying over and over to me, there were lots of aspects of ranching that didn’t look particularly romantic. They were gritty and filthy and tough and bellowing and covered in diarrhea and/or blood.
And if I thought I was the only one struggling to see the calves struggle I would’ve been wrong. I later talked about it with my rancher friend in charge of the castrating and he agreed, branding was a tough thing to see and an even tougher thing to do, but it was a necessity for the herd. It had to be done in order to prevent their animals—their assets—from getting lost and unrecovered or stolen and it was the best way, where other ways, like merely tagging weren’t nearly as reliable. He confessed he didn’t like it any more than I did, but that it did have to be done. And I admired him deeply for that.
He also pointed out that our culture as a whole was getting a bit too soft over the animal killing thing. He said, “Nowadays, I’m afraid if you put a couple people in a room with a gun and a rabbit until they starved, several people would choose to starve or end up shooting themselves before they killed the rabbit. And we have to get away from that.”
I thought that notion was slightly comical, but probably true. I will admit I recently ran over a rabbit on my way home from work and felt horrible about it. But, I would have no problem killing a rabbit if that was my only means of sustenance. Especially if I was starving. If you have ever seen me when I am starving you’d understand that I’d probably kill you if you got in my way of some juicy meat over the notion that it was cruel. Ask my sister Kia about this, when she dared to eat a bagel in front of me during competition on The Biggest Loser and I wasn’t allowed to touch a carbohydrate. Needless to say, Kia probably now has a complex about bagels because of how poorly I reacted.
And don’t get me wrong now either. I am an animal lover through and through. I think Sea World and zoos are incredibly cruel for animals and I don’t support that shenanigans. I don’t however think ranching, hunting or eating meat as sustenance is in any way cruelty to animals.
As the day wound down, and mama cows got reunited with their calves and everyone seemed content, I noticed my friend’s young son snatch what I thought was a calf testicle and pop it in his mouth. Now it was my turn for my eyes to bug out of my head. I thought I was mistaken and watched intently as he went to do it again, singeing it first on a still-hot branding iron, and even offering me one. I shuddered and said no thank you. He laughed and said, “I betchya I could get you to eat one by the end of the day.”
“It’s highly unlikely,” I said while leaning over a fence leaning into the warm sunshine, but smiling at his gumption anyway. I later learned they were full of nutrients and all the ranchers seemed nonplussed by his eating them, even noted that it’d probably be good if I ate one too.
I couldn’t bring myself to, even when the young lad cooked them over a handmade grill instead of a branding iron. I knew I was inching ever closer to the vicinity of my dreams of being a rancher/farmer, but yet… I still had a long ways to go. At least until I could ever dream of branding a calf or eating one of their testicles… but maybe one day. Stranger things have happened.
But for days after, I thought a lot about the branding in particular and the romance of the West. Was there a romance to be found in branding? The calves being branded was not terribly romantic perhaps… But then about a week later, I found myself sitting in a rancher’s home having been invited by my friends to a jam session. There were about ten musicians in a circle playing banjos, harmonicas, a bass and guitars while singing old Western tunes. I had just eaten the most unbelievable steak that my friends I did the branding with had brought and cooked perfectly. I sipped on cool white wine while watching the makeshift band tap their toes in time to the music and wondered how I could burn this memory to my brain? I didn’t want to forget the music in the large and open log cabin facing the Wyoming mountains with the April sun on my face.
And that’s when my brain answered back, you could brand this to your memory. And I smiled on the word brand. Alright. I will somehow brand it to my memory bank, burning it there with a hot, hot iron, singeing it into my neurons, so I could draw it up one day for the same warmth the sun and the sounds and the wine had given me. And just a few songs later, the band wanted to dedicate a song to our beloved Merle Haggard. They played Merle’s, “Branded Man.” I couldn’t help but think maybe the universe was with me on this one. Maybe the romance could still be found. Even in things branded.