March 2014 Column

Everything I need to know I learned at a cattle branding.

I’ve had the good fortune of having friends who allow me to participate in things I know absolutely nothing about just so I can be one of the group. A while ago I asked friends if they needed help after listening to a conversation about a weekend branding.  The better question would have been do you need help from someone who doesn’t know what they are doing.  Being the polite individuals they are they quickly said sure, we could use some help, have you ever been to a branding before?  I was honest and said no, then told them I had watched plenty of Rawhide episodes as a kid and was sure I could pick it up.  Little did I know.

A branding takes a team of individuals, hard work and a chain of command many refer to as a pecking order. The day begins well before sunlight.  Fortunately I did not have to ride the range to round up the cattle – a chore which had already been done in the previous days.  On the morning of the branding,  each rancher provides a healthy breakfast for his neighbors - knowing they will work it off in a matter of hours. 

Branding is not for the faint of heart.  Once the calves are brought into and separated from the cows,  the cowboys divvy up the work load.  Each is assigned a role with the host rancher typically making sure all the jobs are covered by competent cowboys and cowgirls. This is, after all, their livelihood.

As the newby in the group I was asked if I wanted to flank?  Sure, I said, not knowing what a flank is. In this part of the ranching world, cowboys  still rope and drag calves into the corral rather than running them through a shoot and locking them in. The cowboy or cowgirl must rope the hind legs to immobilize the calf,  then drag it toward a group of individuals who wait anxiously to brand.  The flankers grab the calf and wrestle it to the ground.  Then one of the flankers grabs one leg and pulls while he/she pushes the other legs with his foot to make sure the calf stays put. Immobilized and calling for his mother, the calf soon realizes this experience is not going to end well for him.

Upper-tier management takes over once the calf is on the ground. Cowboys are assigned to castrate, dehorn and inoculate the calves - all in a matter of seconds.  Cowboys may be the least susceptible to disease of any profession.  I saw many a cowboy accidently inject himself while holding the calf down.

Then the real fun begins.  The rancher who is in charge grabs a branding iron (or two) from an open fire and places it strategically on the calf to burn his brand into the calve’s hide. Much to my surprise, the exertion of wrestling a calf to the ground and stretching his legs combined with the smell of burned hide did not mix well with my full stomach of eggs, bacon and toast.  The branding complete, I was more than happy to let the calf up to meander along so I could rid myself of a sour stomach.

By day’s end, the team is exhausted – but not too tired for the stories to begin. Respect for the history of the cowboy lifestyle is evident among all who participate. Most cowboys call it neighboring, because each rancher helps his neighbor with various parts of the ranching lifestyle.

This entire scenario could be replicated in a successful workplace.  Schools function with chain of commands.  The principals work with lead teachers and support staff to ensure their building is functioning properly.  Education itself is hard work.  Students must work hard to improve their academics and teachers must work hard to prepare, instruct then evaluate the learning in the classroom.  And yes, sometimes when we cut the calves from the mother cows, we hear bellows from the kids who know this experience is going to be different.

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