Today, I thought I was going to visit a ranch to watch branding, which in itself would have been an experience. However, when we arrived I was asked if I wanted to help out. Of course I leapt at this opportunity, put my cowgirl hat on and got to work.
Branding occurs once a year and prepares calves for their life ahead. This involves castrating, vaccinating and branding the animals (with a hot branding iron and cutting their ear). Today we branded 200 calves.
There were three cowboys on horses, they roped the calves by throwing their rope over the calves back legs. They then dragged the calves attached to their rope from the unbranded section to our section; where another three cowboys awaited to grab the calf and tackle them to the ground. They threw a metal head catch around the cow’s neck so they were secured down. Some calf’s were more obedient than others. At one point I was terrified. The calf struggled so much so that his legs became free and he was running around with the metal head catch flying all over the place. Other calves that the cowboys missed with their ropes were wrestled to the ground with the cowboys bare hands. They would grab their legs and put their entire body weight over the calf.
Once the calf was in place, I would spray pesticide on their back to prevent them from catching worms. Then we vaccinated them with a injection (I tried this a few times too). Next the owners of the calves would place the stemming hot metal branding iron on the animals body. This would burn through the hair and leave a mark. If the calf was a bull it would be castrated by one of the cowboys using a knife. Also if the bull had horns they would be cauterozed so the horns would not grow. Finally the top of the calf’s ear was cut. This is done as a further indicator that the calf belonged to this particular ranch.
The whole process took from 9.30am until 2.30pm and the day before was spent gathering the cattle into the corrals. It was such a different experience. I was only spraying and I found it tiring enough. At first I was scared and skittish, the cattle and horses were running around everywhere. At one point one of the horses started bucking and the rider almost fell off. I was petrified and immediately ran backwards with everyone else.
In comparison with the rodeo – this was the real deal. The rodeo is a sporting event that occurs for people’s enjoyment. It is rather like gladiator watching (the concept seems the same to me). The cowboys involved were professional sportsman rather than true working cowboys. Branding however, involved real cowboys and cowgirls and occurs for a purpose. It is important for calves to be branded and set up for their life. Although it seems to hurt the calves, I was told that it was a necessary event which makes sure the calves don’t get ill or lost. Branding was very hard to watch, the calves groaned, their eyes cried out, blood poured everywhere and their bodies shook.
While I was working as a cowgirl, I thought it was my duty to embrace all aspects of the event and culture. I spotted someone eating the bull’s testicles and decided to enquire. Other cowboys and gals said they ate them with garlic or sautéed. They suggested me to do the same if I wanted to try. However, transporting them and cooking them in the yurt seemed unlikely. Instead, I tried one there and then. We cooked it slightly on the hot iron and then I took and deep breath and ate a bull’s testicle. It tasted just like a beef sausage.
Driving the big truck home, with my face coated in dust, pesticide on my jeans, mud on my shoes, blood on my hands and my cowboy hat on I got a glimpse of life as a true Montanan cowgirl.
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