Brandings usually occur when the cattle are moved off the winter range. The calves were born in March and need to be marked so that they can legally be sold next winter. It's possible to just process the calves through a chute, as I wrote about in 2009. However, the cowboys much prefer the old-fashioned method, which involves roping the calves, separating them from the rest, and then processing them. The roping allows the cowboys to hone their skills and also provides a social function, as friends and neighbors often come to help.
We watched some excellent young cowboys rope calves and bring them back.
Sometimes it can be tricky to keep the calf down, especially if the special gadget to keep them confined doesn't get attached. Once they're down, they're vaccinated and have their ears cut. Instead of branding with a red-hot iron, ear cutting is what the ranch uses (but the whole get-together is still often called branding). If it's a male calf, a rubber band is applied to his delicate parts to cut off blood flow (in effect castrating it, but without Rocky Mountain oysters flying all over).
Here's an overview of what the process looks like: the cowboy and horse pull the calf into position, while other cowboys move in to do all the tasks necessary.
Cowgirls are very much a part of the whole operation.
It takes a lot of skill and communication to make sure that the calf is held at just the right tension.
This little cowboy was one of the best ropers out there. He made it look easy. Yet when I try to lasso something that's not even moving, I have a hard time.
Now, for some of the details.
The spur, stirrup, and chap fringe.
The wannabe cowboy (aka Desert Boy).
Chaps are just way too cool.
Getting new eartags ready. These have insecticides on them to help keep the flies from bothering the cows.
My nephew. The mountains in the background are something we almost take for granted.
The high desert of the Great Basin is such a breathtaking place.
It's time to rope!
The lasso goes out...
And makes contact! The calf is pulled.
A beautiful horse.
One thing the photos don't quite show is how hot and dusty it can all be. My camera was coated with a dust layer (of course lying on the ground may have contributed to that!). When you're right up there with the animals, it's even dustier.
A well-warranted drink break. But only if you're wearing chaps.
This one's a keeper. This cowboy was a great roper, even with a broken arm.
The kids got worn out fast, but I was still glad to have the chance to watch for awhile. The skill these cowboys show is amazing, something that takes years to hone.
And if you'd like to see even more photos of ranch life, A Handful of Dust Documentary has some terrific ones.