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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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 crap shoot, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 mason jar. The ranchers arrive a few minutes later, a little less cowboy without their mighty steeds and fringed chaps.
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 excitementthe, 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.