Do It You Own Way

By Patti Wilson, Contributing Editor

It’s August and spring calving is done. Cows and yearlings have quit forlornly and reluctantly eating last year’s hay; they are living like royalty on sunshine and green, growing forages.

Our cattle are not the only ones relieved to be living a simpler life. Farmers and ranchers, after tedious and repetitive daily care, can now sit down for just a moment. Personally, I cannot make it past April 10 without looking belligerently at a big, round bale of hay that needs the twine or net wrap pulled.

Working cattle

That leads us to cattle processing. Feedlots have their own crews, a standard operating procedure (SOP) and employees who run their chutes year ‘round. They may process incoming cattle daily, laptops at hand and hydraulics humming. They are mostly what we oldsters term Millennials.

Ranchers and farmers, however, are caught in an annual “branding stress.” There are many ways this springtime ritual takes place, each the same, and at the same time, each as different as every operation.

In my mind, the crunch begins when cows come off cornstalks to calve. It’s time to roll up several miles of fence around last year’s crop residue and begin the daily chore of feeding cows. Yearlings need additional supplementation, as well. So begins a marathon of activity that lasts until grass time the following season.

In a final springtime push, we work the cattle.

Help wanted

We are all familiar with the extreme labor shortage plaguing agriculture; it is the root of most springtime anxiety. Even those skillful enough to put together a sizeable, competent crew have been hindered this year by social distancing and self-isolation. We worked with fewer and braver people.

In my neighborhood, hired help is scarce and a lucky few have family enough to supply almost-adequate labor for long and trying days. Neighborly help is more common and always welcome; trading day work has been a mainstay and glue in our community.

Neighbors are familiar with one another’s facilities, livestock and procedures. We are all “on the same page,” so to speak. Cooperating friends become a priceless commodity.

Many people hold their brandings in one day, a virtual marathon. Working calves at the Wilson ranch takes place over two or three days. Easing through the cattle instead of trying to work everything the same day saves wear and tear on the help and decreases the chance of someone getting hurt. Neighbors can go home at a reasonable time and chore in the daylight.

I am aware of very few people who have the big “party” brandings, inviting all to come who wish to be a cowboy for a day. This is something I cannot wrap my head around. The calf working becomes a sort of social gathering, and a good time is presumably had by all. My educated guess is, there are a whole lot of people dressed “western,” enjoying themselves in the sunshine, and a few hardcore, competent cowboys doing all the work. These few shoulder all the responsibility. Who wants their banker implanting their calves? Really? Clearly, the day is not for amateurs, and someone may get hurt in all the fun.

In addition, many operations here use the axiom of  “less is more,” meaning that there is a correct number of competent people needed to handle the cattle. Too many people trying to be helpful can create a whole lot of problems around stressed livestock.

We must sustain ourselves

One thing that I am sure is a constant among all brandings is good food. Most ranch wives I know are expected to work at the chute and also provide a good meal for the crew. This is a tricky chore to learn. Suffice it to say that those of us who have mastered chute work and meal prep simultaneously are pretty darn smug. Some things you will never see at my house: Styrofoam plates, plastic sporks, ready-to-eat goods originating from Walmart and beans. Especially beans. What you’ll get most of the time is home-raised beef or lamb with plenty of potatoes and gravy, garden-raised vegetables and pie. On a glass plate with real silverware. I am strongly surmising that’s approximately the fare at 90 percent of brandings around our area.

My favorite noontime story involves a local who, during a sheep-shearing day, took his shear crew into the house to eat. After sitting down, they were each presented with a can of pork ‘n beans, a can opener and a spoon. I think they had to bring their own water. I hate to admit it, but I know these people.

One of my annual rituals is asking a good neighbor what kind of pie he wants when he comes to our place to help. He answers the same every year, “I only like two kinds of pie, hot pie and cold pie.”

Many scenarios

Readying yearlings to go to grass is a piece of cake compared to handling pairs. It takes a smaller crew and goes faster, barring unforeseen wrecks. The big difference in techniques comes with calf brandings.

The bigger and more remote ranches prefer to stay with the “rope and drag” method of restraining calves. We use an alley and calf cradle. Hot irons may be heated over a wood or propane fire; we use an electric iron. There are several effective methods of dehorning and castration used in our area. Location and herd size dictate an endless variety of methods in sorting, vaccinating, tagging and preparing for grass. This is a big country and we are diverse in the way we reach the same endpoint.

Hot on the heels of cattle working/branding is grass turnout, when correctly pairing out cows and calves becomes the most important job of the year.

Life goes on

Maintaining and repairing haying equipment follows, along with hosting the appropriate sheep shearer for a couple days. My shear man is the guy who only likes two kinds of pie, a person who smooths out a lot of bumps by just being around. Sheep shearing has become a time to look forward to, after the heavy and stressful efforts of getting cattle out to grass.

It’s safe to say that there are a lot of different ways to reach the same endpoint, but one thing is for certain; we all do one thing exactly the same way. When the last pair jumps out of the trailer or walks through the pasture gate and lands on green grass, we each heave a huge sigh of relief.