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Excerpt from the Book

Chapter Six: Branding

The wind chimes ring out. The sun rises, making its way from Dublin, Montreal, Duluth, and Mountain Home. Soon it will brush the willows and pine tops; soon it will light my paper and warm my eyes: a traveling spirit, posing as fire in the sky.

The Kurtz Ranch Brands: Spear Quarter Circle and Two Quarter Circle

Summer 2005

When the tulips under the kitchen window billow, it’s branding time on the ranch. Each year in early May we gather the cows and calves from their peaceful life on the spring meadows and move them into the corrals behind the barn. This gathering can be a simple matter or it can be morning of struggle and cursing.

The bawling and protestations begin as soon as we walk around behind the herd on horseback and begin to drive them toward the open gate by the corrals. At least one high-strung cow will sense trouble immediately and high tail it in the other direction, leaving her calf disoriented and struggling to follow or sometimes completely abandoned. At that moment, Pete takes off in her direction, yelling back at me, “I’ll get that one. You stay with the others. Just push ‘em up against the fence.” And off he goes, spurring his horse over the irrigation ditch, headed for the scrub oak below the road where the cow seems to head for cover. Pete’s determination and fearlessness on his horse always surpasses the mother cow’s. He always wins out, usually with the help of a third rider who closes off an open space in the meadow and allows Pete to drive the cow back to the herd where I’m walking them along the fence line.

With the herd gathered, we begin again to move them down the fence line, through the gate, down the alley-way and into the corrals. One by one, we separate the cows from their babies, sending the cows out into a holding area and moving the calves into a smaller corral. When it comes to the actual branding routine, we’ve used a number of techniques to gather up the calves. We’ve followed in the footsteps of traditional brandings and used a horse and rider to rope each calf and drag it to the branding area, where additional hands grab the calf and hold it down. We’ve pushed the calves down our alley and into a calf chute where they are restrained. And finally, when we work with our calves in small groups, which we often do, friends and family jump in and help grab a calf by a hind leg and drag it to a working area by the barn door where we have vaccines, ear tags, and a branding iron ready.

It takes two hands to manage a calf. One holds a hind leg and the other grabs the calf’s head. Together, the two hands sit down on the ground. The hand at the rear of the calf stretches it out pushing the other hind leg as far forward as possible, while the second hand sits on the neck of the calf and pulls back a front leg. A third hand handles the vaccines and ear tags; and a fourth hand, usually Pete, castrates the bull calves and brands the calf. Those on the ground hold the calf tight. A hundred pound calf can put up a fight that gives even the strongest help a beating as the calf’s legs kick wildly for release. Vaccinations are administered first for common calf diseases and pink eye. Then Pete puts the branding iron carefully on the left hip, pressing down hoping the calf won’t move. The searing iron burns through the hair, crackling and smoking on its way to the skin. The pungent smell of burnt hair quickly permeates all one’s clothing and senses and is not easily escaped nor forgotten.

If the calf moves, the branding iron may slip and distort the image. Pete strives for a clean brand each time just as a graphic artist strives for clarity in a commercial design. A brand indicates ownership and when the day comes to sell the calf, the identity of the brand needs to be clear for the brand inspector to read it. So, if the brand is clean, a small celebration follows, “Hey, good one.” Or, a satisfying, “That’ll do.” If the help on the ground gets yanked by a large calf and Pete slips with the branding iron, there’s immediate cursing in the branding banter. A hand on the ground shouts out “Holy crap! That’s a rowdy one. Get back here you little shit.” And as Pete steps back to get out of the way, “Damn it, not again. Hold on now, I gotta get this right.”

In the middle of such a long-held ranching tradition every spring, Pete and I never fail to feel as though there were a more humane way to brand cattle. Our ambivalence never finds a satisfying alternative. The branding of cattle in the state of Colorado is state law, so we must carry on with our chore each year.

So, one by one we work our way through the herd of young calves. When we’re finished, we push the calves out to the holding area where their mother’s eagerly await, having never given up bawling for their babies return. Once mothers and babies are together, we push them back onto the meadows by horseback, the return drive to open spaces orderly and quiet. Our branding day ends with a sense of satisfaction; the physical labor, the coordinated work of many hands, and the eventual reuniting of mothers and their babies at the end of the day sounds out a deep reminder of a natural rhythm to the world.

We won’t think much about our Two Quarter Circle brand until late fall when we get ready to sell our calves. Sometime in November Pete will give a local livestock shipper, Neil Chew, a call and ask him when he can take a load to the Centennial Livestock Auction in Fort Collins. Each spring, Neil’s family brings their sheep and cattle into North Routt County to graze in the high country and return them come late November to their home place in eastern Utah near Jensen. They’ve completed this migration to and fro for over fifty years.

Once Neil is scheduled to back his semi into our loading chute, Pete calls Daren Clever, our brand inspector and friend whom we see with the cycles of the season. Daren wears comfortable western mule shoes and carries a pink livestock cane when he comes to our place to inspect our shipment of calves. He once said he used the pink cane just because he could. Pete’s comfortable with Daren. I think they speak the same language about the minds of horses and their own. The conversation rolls quickly into roping horses and plans for summer training.

Brand inspectors like Daren are important fixtures in the animal industry. Part law enforcers, part gatekeepers, they inspect each animal before it’s transported and the ownership is officially transferred. When Daren checks each brand at our ranch, the cattle move across the corral while his eyes search for the correct brand as though he’d turned on a personal x-ray. After he certifies what he saw and writes up the paperwork on the hood of his white truck, he and Pete talk about who bought what roping horse from whom and how they plan to winter over.

Two character brands, like ours, the Spear Quarter Circle and Two Quarter Circle, reach back to an earlier time. The tradition of branding animals to claim ownership goes back thousands of years to the Chinese who branded their farm animals. The Greeks, unimaginably, branded their slaves. In the American West, large herds of cattle grazed vast open ranges. When gathered in the fall for market, the ranchers needed a method to identify their own cattle. So in the spring round-ups, all the calves were branded. Hot branding irons waited in open fires to claim each one. The brand might be an initial, or if two men had the same initial, it became an initial with a bar or wings or a running symbol. Brands are registered for county recording purposes and today can be researched in state brand books. As the West grew and cattle herds increased, ranchers ran out of unique two character brands and a third character was added. Here, a long-time ranch to the south used the S Bar S brand for five generations.

Once a practical necessity, a brand today is often elevated to a sign of a special connection to the past, to a fraternal bond with the ideals of America’s West. A number of developments in our county claim both a name and a brand. For example, the Storm Mountain Ranch development’s brand is a running river over an image of a mountain range. Alpine Mountain Ranch’s brand is the letter “A” without the cross bar over the letter “M” all enclosed in a circle. Neither development raises cattle nor has a need for a brand, but I recently noticed a woman in the produce section of the grocery store with the name of her home development and brand embroidered on her canvas handbag. Perhaps hers served as a kind of New West coat of arms?

John Clayton in Writers on the Range believes we should be thankful for those who clamor for a connection to the history of the American West, just as this woman in the produce section, for it is they who help keep the memory and traditions alive. Where the newcomers and old-timers meet, there’s opportunity for “a vibrant culture.” I hope it’s so. I hope those who wear their brands on their ball caps and handbags come to know the long history of branding possessions and the true role branding plays in the cattle industry. And I hope where ego meets true history, the energy of the ego will turn to devoted advocate, a new loyal westerner. What a rich meeting there would be between Daren, our brand inspector with his pink staff, and the woman whose home in the Alpine Development was once also home to cattle Daren inspected years ago, before they were loaded onto a semi headed to market for the last time.