Take Part in an Authentic Spring Cattle Branding in Montana

Low shot of horse in a pen with a cowboy about to rope some cows at a cattle branding

As soon as I get out of the vehicle, I’m hit by the baritone wails coming from dozens of distressed heifers.

Their calves have been moved to an adjoining pen—and they’re not happy about it. Some pace while others stretch out their necks, raise their noses to the sky and mooooooooooo.

(click above to hear the cows that morning) 

Spring Branding Day

It’s spring cattle branding day at the CB, a 26,000-acre cattle ranch in Darby, Montana. Over 100 calves will be branded, vaccinated, and the unlucky males, castrated, in an annual event echoed by ranches throughout the West.

Cows during a cattle branding at the Triple Creek Ranch in Darby, Montana - The Insatiable Traveler
Calves before branding. The tag in the right ear means it’s a male, meaning it will be castrated too

I’m here by way of CB’s sister ranch, Triple Creek, a luxury resort where I’m staying as an invited guest. Every year, Triple Creek offers travelers the opportunity to take part in this authentic western tradition as part of its lineup of themed weekends that also include a cattle drive and culinary programs.

I’ve spent little time in the American West but have always found the culture fascinating. I jumped at the chance to see an authentic cattle branding. I’ve flown all over the world to experience various practices and customs, the fact that it’s taking place in my proverbial backyard made it no less interesting.  It was one of the reasons I’d come to Montana.

Man and toddler son riding a horse in Darby, Montana at a Triple Creek Ranch cattle branding - The Insatiable Traveler
Spring branding is a family affair. This rancher brought his three children and their horses. They took a quick ride around the large paddock before the work began

It’s 8:30 am, local ranchers and their families are arriving, horses in tow. They volunteered to pitch in as is customary, knowing that their assistance will be reciprocated. That’s the deal. Everyone saves time and money branding each other’s herds, and it’s a great excuse to socialize with friends and neighbors. Not to mention that Triple Creek has a reputation for throwing one hell of a barbecue when it’s over.

Cowboy ropes calf by the back legs at Triple Creek Ranch cattle branding - The Insatiable Traveler
One of the local ranchers drags a calf out of the smaller pen

Walking past the cows, I watch while a family unloads their mounts from a silver trailer the size of a school bus.  Dressed the part, they don jeans, fringed chaps, and the obligatory cowboy hats and boots.

It seems almost everyone at the CB is the real deal, except for me wearing a pair of borrowed “Shit kickers”( a.k.a cowboy boots), and the other guests from Triple Creek.

Reata, an endearing four-year-old with pale skin and a fondness for climbing fences, whose father is there to help, looks like a postcard in a bubblegum pink cowboy hat and matching chaps.

Triple Creek Ranch cattle branding in Montana - The Insatiable Traveler
Triple Creek Ranch Cattle Branding Day in Montana - The Insatiable Traveler
Triple Creek Ranch cattle branding day in Montana - The Insatiable Traveler
Riata in her bubblegum pink cowboy hat and matching chaps

Here we go…

The cowboys are ready to start, and I’m as nervous as I am curious about what’s up next. I know the calves will feel fear and pain, and though I’m told that cattle branding is quick I have no idea how I will, or should, feel about it.

We are in the larger of two adjoining paddocks. Kids play on a wooden fence separating the heifers from all the action while their parents hop into their saddles. Iron brands are heating in a cylindrical grill, their heads glowing bright like red neon signs.

Cowboys' roping a calf at Triple Creek Ranch Spring cattle branding day - The Insatiable Traveler

The calves are in the smaller paddock next to us, and the gate between us is open. Two men flank the entrance to make sure the cows don’t run out. Riders (one a badass grandmother rocking a braid down to her butt) enter on horseback and their ropes begin to fly.

A calf is snared by its back feet with the precision of a sharpshooter and then dragged several feet into the larger pen. (Amazing skill, roping. Imagine trying to rope an animal that’s running around like a cat after a poop from 30 feet away. It can’t be easy.)

Triple Creek Ranch cattle Branding Day in Montana - The Insatiable Traveler

A staffer runs alongside the calf, slipping a metal contraption called a nordfork over the back of its head. The apparatus is tied to a rope and inner tube combo (giving it some stretch), and staked to the ground. If all goes as planned, and with a panicked calf that’s a bit of a crapshoot, the animal is stretched out lengthwise, held between the Nordfork on one end and a horse and rider on the other. Three people are practically sitting on the calf to keep it still.

They also used an old-school where a second rider ropes a calf around the head or front legs, immobilizing it between two horses instead of using a nordfolk. For those that manage to slip away, tackling and a fair amount of wrestling works too.

Triple Creek Ranch Cattle Branding Day in Montana - The Insatiable Traveler

The Uncomfortable Part 

When a calf is roped and dragged it isn’t pretty. It struggles, and moos bloody murder, its tongue protruding from its mouth like a cartoon character.

Once the calf comes to a stop, its rolled over onto its left side and if its front legs aren’t tied, the right is bent and held close to the body so it can’t thrash about. (Calves can weigh as much as 200 lbs. Flying hooves can inflict real damage.)

Craig Barrett, owner of Triple Creek and the CB, and the former chairman and CEO of Intel is the official vaccinator. He’s a man whose ruggedness belies his many years in corporate America. He’s tall, in his late seventies, his stark white hair hidden under a baseball cap. He’s armed with a metal syringe the width of a cigar and filled with a milky yellow concoction designed to combat a litany of nasty diseases. He injects the liquid into the cow’s neck.

Man on horse shot from below at Triple Creek ranch cattle branding in Montana - The Insatiable Traveler

A man appears with a hot brand and I find myself reflexively wincing. An inner monologue begins, the kind you have when you’re at the top of a roller coaster about to take the first plunge. Ok, here we go….. Get ready…. It’s going to be scary… 

Standing behind the calf, the man braces his left foot on the cow’s back as another man uses electric clippers to shave a rectangle off its right hip. As the brand touches the calf a thick puff of grey smoke rises blocking my view. Seconds later, the area bursts into flames as if a match had been struck. The calf lurches and wails. I close my eyes, my mind racing. It’s ok baby. It’s ok. It’s almost done. Thankfully, it’s quick. The brand is removed and in its stead are the initials C and B.

Triple Creek Ranch Cattle Branding Day in Montana - The Insatiable Traveler
Branding cattle goes as far back as the ancient Egyptians. American settlers got the idea from Europeans

My inner animal rights activist is at war with my inner meat-eater.

Rights activist: I need to stop this! Is branding really necessary?

Meat-eater: This is a centuries-old tradition. You eat meat from cattle ranches like this all the time. It’s part of the package. Pull yourself together. 

They agree to disagree.

Triple Creek Ranch Cattle Branding Day in Montana - The Insatiable Traveler

For the male calves, the ordeal isn’t over.  The Castrator (my term, not his) reaches for his tongs and a scalpel. I’m instantly squeamish. I tell myself that I’m here to watch and learn. Buck up. I walk over and see him reach for the calve’s balls. I can’t watch. Education be damned.

When it’s over, said balls are put into a bright yellow pail as if the cheery color somehow makes the contents less grisly. When it’s done, the calf is released and it dashes to the other side of the paddock where its post-branded friends are huddling.

Triple Creek Ranch Cattle Branding Day in Montana - The Insatiable Traveler
Fried Rocky Mountain Oysters Photo: Triple Creek Ranch

As Triple Creek’s guest, I am welcome to participate as much or as little as I want. I focus on photographing the spectacle but some guests jump right in. A few hold the cows down, some shave, others take a turn at branding.

Rocky Mountain Oysters

Over 50 calves have made their way from roping to release when I’m offered a fried rocky mountain oyster.

I’m in a shooting groove and distracted, so I decline. In the back of my mind, I wonder why on earth are they serving oysters? Just as quickly I answer my own question: Triple Creek is flying them in as a special treat. I think it’s a total disconnect with the occasion but whatever.

Susan Portnoy, the insatiable traveler, photographing a cow at a cattle branding at Triple Creek Ranch in Montana - The Insatiable Traveler
Photo: Triple Creek Ranch

It turns out, I am WAY off base. Remember that yellow pail?

Uh huh… rocky mountain oysters.

In truth, I’m not disappointed. If I’d understood, I would have eaten one. I believe that’s what travel is all about: trying new things. Am I gonna lose sleep over it? Hell no.

The Barbecue

Three hours after the branding began, the excitement is over. We move to an open hay barn where tables have been set for lunch with pretty wildflower centerpieces arranged in a mason jar. The ranchers arrive a few minutes later, a little less cowboy without their mighty steeds and fringed chaps.

Guests, ranchers and staff eating after Spring cattle Branding Day at Triple Creek Ranch in Montana - The Insatiable Traveler

Triple Creek’s chef, Jacob Leatherman, serves guests behind a draped buffet table. The smell of dust and manure turns into savory elk chili with smoked cheeses and chipotle sour cream.

I stuff myself and add two helpings of cake cornbread topped with pulled pork shoulder and honey bourbon BBQ sauce. For dessert, he serves individual mixed berry cobblers and though I’m full I eat it. I’m a sucker for cobbler.


It’s after lunch and I’m headed towards the vehicle, it’s time to go back to Triple Creek, I’m sapphire panning at 3pm. The day’s events play in my head like a rerun: the riders, the skill, and excitement the, the calves, the crying heifers.

I’d wanted to see this slice of our country’s heritage. It’s an experience I couldn’t have had as a suburban Michigander, and the day delivered in spades.

It was psychologically more complicated than I anticipated. Seeing the calves frightened and in pain was hard. Yet, overall, I had fun. How do I reconcile these conflicting emotions? That’s hard too, I’m human.

Suddenly, it strikes me that I don’t hear the heifers mooing anymore. Beyond the paddocks and the memories, the cows quietly graze in a field. It’s over, and they’re reunited.

I welcomed the silence.

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27 thoughts on “Take Part in an Authentic Spring Cattle Branding in Montana

  1. Rick Osborn says:

    You handled it well I think. I raise cattle in illinois and although we dont brand, because everything is fenced, farmers and ranchers take care of their animals. There is nothing better to me than standing and looking over the gate with a cup of coffe at 6am watching my cows graze and the calves run. Its a feeling that I cant explain, but you felt it. Thanks for the article.

  2. Susan Portnoy says:

    I heard from Kimberly Strain yesterday, one of the ranchers who was at the branding in this article. She had some additional information regarding why branding is still used today and I wanted to include them here:

    “The brand is a form of identification that is widely used because it works. When cows crawl through fences, as they do, it is the best way to identify them from your neighbors. Microchips are a great idea, but they aren’t visible when you are out in the field and it wouldn’t be good time management to microchip every animal as they are sold. Ear tags are a great idea, but they don’t always stay in and they can be easily replaced with a different one. Cattle thieving is still VERY real today.”

    In addition…”Ranchers care for every animal even if some days appear more harsh than others. The branding process can be stressful and scary to a calf – as a cattlewoman, I see it as a day to evaluate herd health – you get to watch and handle every calf to see if they are healthy (no snot, no broken legs, good weight, no scours), in addition to putting an identification brand on them. I wish that people removed from the ranching industry saw that part of it too. I wish they saw that the animals are well cared for and not just a commodity in our eyes. The animals that we have in our care DO need to grow up to be healthy individuals, as disturbing as an open wound may appear on the outside, the calves WILL be fine and healthy.”

    • Kim Jones says:

      Some painkillers have very adverse affects on calves. Some are blood thinners that don’t allow the open wound to clot & heal. Others are hard on their bodies. On a side note: hormone free & antibiotic free beef must be free of medicinal traces. An alternative castration method is to band them. In my experience, banding is more humane in theory because there isn’t an open wound, however, the pain lasts longer & takes a lot longer for the calves to heal.

  3. Pie says:

    “My inner animal rights activist is at war with my inner meat-eater.

    Rights activist: I need to stop this! Is branding really necessary?

    Meat-eater: This is a centuries old tradition. You eat meat from cattle ranches like this all the time. It’s part of the package. Pull yourself together.

    They agree to disagree.”

    Even though I have never attended a calf branding or castration, I echo your feelings. I feel a war waging inside me many a time over essentially the same dilemma. Love the beautiful photographs!

  4. Heide says:

    This is WONDERFUL, Susan! Your photos were outstanding — as they always are. But your narrative took it up an extra notch; I feel as if I’d been standing next to you for the whole thing. I also echo your mixed feelings about the whole affair: While parts of it seem a wee bit barbaric to this city slicker, as a meat-eater it would be hypocritical to protest too much. We can only hope those young calves have a short memory. 🙂

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      I wouldn’t say it was off putting. I found it fascinating and emotionally challenging. And you’re right, I would probably feel less conflicted going a second time because I would know what to expect. It’s easy to become desensitized to things like that. The day offered up some worthwhile self examination. I wasn’t brought up in an area where animals were considered commodities. In my suburb, everything was a pet and I recognize that influenced my reaction. My exposure was nill compared to what ranchers’ children experience. It was worth seeing if for no other reason than partaking in a cultural tradition that’s integral to my American heritage.

  5. Chris Riley says:

    Being a meat eater too I don’t feel I have the right to feel upset by practices such as these – but I feel upset all the same. We are a barbaric animal…

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      I have such conflicting emotions. It’s an age old tradition and not done in any way with malice. Growing up where cattle represent a commodity and not a *cute* animal absolutely instills a different perspective. It was a valuable exercise to experience it and think it through. Thanks for your thoughts.

  6. JoHanna Massey says:

    A really interesting post. Your photography really captured the details. My favorite is the shot taken from behind the cowboy focused on his boot, spurs, chaps, and the long view of the heifers. Can really appreciate the conflict between the heifers distress and what was obviously a great day of fun for you. Thank you.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hi JoHanna – Thank you for taking time to check out the post and your kind words about the images. It was definitely a different kind of adventure which involved a lot of conflicting emotions, but I welcome that kind of reflection.

I would love to hear from you! What did you think of the post?