Trust your neighbors, but always brand your calves.
As most everyone knows I would much rather be outside than in an office. This is exactly why I took the chance to skip work and help my husband and his dad work a few of his calves not too long ago. I mean, really, what's better than my butt in the saddle, my camera in my hands, with a front row view watching cowboys do what they do. I'm talking the smell of horse sweat and branding iron smoke, the sound of cows and calves bawling, the site of men of a dying breed riding ranch raised ponies, and the sweet feeling of knowing life doesn't get much sweeter. The good Lord doesn't paint pictures much prettier than that. How lucky am I?!
If you've never been to a calf working, then it's hard to know EXACTLY what goes down. I'll try to give you a quick rundown so that maybe the pictures will make a little more sense.
There is an unspoken cowboy code between the men in a crew. The cowboy is a breed all their own with a language and understanding that goes unspoken. Each man knows his job, and the respect and responsibility of each man goes without saying. It truly is an art. One that is full of respect and tradition. It’s something that everyone should have the privilege of experiencing.
The first step is to pen the cattle. You start off with the "drop off". The men leave out horseback in a trot to the back of the pasture. As they're heading across the backside, one by one they get dropped off. The boss man will say a name and that person drops off in that hole and waits. Once every cowboy is dropped off, the boss man lets out a holler. That holler is passed back down the line from cowboy to cowboy until it makes it back to the first guy in line. This means to start making their way to the pens. Every man is responsible for any cattle in his hole. No cowboy ever leaves his hole. Once you're dropped off, you will continuously have the same man to your left and the same man to your right. The cowboys will zigzag back and forth in their hole bumping the man to their left and right. Keep in mind that the brush might be so thick that you may never see either of them. That's why you will hear the frequent squall between the men letting each other know where they are. This helps them know they didn't miss anything and helps them stay in line.
As they make their way to the front of the pasture they throw the cattle together into one big herd. Each cowboy rides their hole all the way to the gate. At that point, there's a strict rule that you never ride in front of another man's horse. You also never ride away from a gate while a man's closing it. It's not too often that someone breaks these rules, but you can bet it's corrected if someone does.
Often times when you're in a brushy pasture you will end up missing one or two. Cows are protective of their babies, and they can brush up in a way that makes them almost invisible. I'm quite certain that sometimes they even hold their breath in an effort to not be seen or heard. But that's where one of cowboy's most valuable tools comes into play, the cow dog. A mamma cow can elude some of even the best cowboys, but very seldom do they go undetected from the keen nose of a feisty cow dog. And my husband just happens to have some of the very best. When you leave out with the dogs, you make a pass through the pasture letting the dogs sniff out anything and everything they can. A dog is meant to be silent on the trail, meaning they should never bark unless they're eye to eye with what they're looking for. Then it's on. Their bark lets the other dogs know that they have something. The rest of the packs job is to go to the bark. Cows that aren't dog broke will try to break free, but they soon find out that they are no match for dogs with much bite. Cows that are dog broke will often head straight to the pens. They know that captivity is their only chance at freedom from the dogs.
Once everything is in the pens, then it's time to strip the cows off the calves. Cows are much easier to handle than baby calves, so you bring the cows off the calves. You have a gate man that does the sorting and the other cowboys bring small bunches to him and let him filter the cows through the gate while holding back the calves. This is where the term "stripping the cows" comes into play. You literally take the cows off the calves.
Now comes the hard work. With the calves sorted off, it's time to drag them to the fire. One cowboy is asked to stay on his horse. Being asked to drag someone else's calves is an honor and should be treated as such. As the dragger, you're responsible for bringing the calves to the fire, not only in a manner that will keep the other cowboys safe, but also in a way that won't injure or harm the calves. They're literally holding that rancher's paycheck in their hands. That's a big responsibility. You will always hear a thank you to the boss man for the privilege of being given the opportunity to drag his calves once he's done.
With one man on his horse, the rest of the crew is ground help. There are at least two flankers. Depending on the size of the pens and the crew, sometimes two people drag. Sometimes one person drags and you have two sets of flankers. The dragger pulls the calf by two hind feet between the two men flanking. One grabs ahold of the rope. His job is pull the hind feet up in the air while the other man grabs the tail and pulls the opposite direction. If done quickly and simultaneously the calf will land flat on his side. The tail man then goes to the front leg and puts a knee on their neck. The rope man goes under the rope and holds the back legs. He's also in charge of taking off the rope. Once the calf's down, the rest of the crew jumps in to give shots, ear notch, brand, and cut the bulls. Along the way people will switch out responsibilities so that no one person gets stuck flanking every single calf. Someone else will drag, two new people will flank, and so on.
Once the calves are worked, it's all downhill from there. Next the cowboys will usually mount back up and get in the pen with the cows. They're next job is to sort off the drys, or the cows that don't have a baby and aren't bred. These cows are usually the old cows, or maybe one that's too thin or too fat to breed. Sometimes a cow will just never raise a calf. A man in a cow/calf operation has no use for a cow that doesn't reproduce.
It's not always an easy job, but it has to be done. As any good rancher knows there's one rule you never forget; trust your neighbors, but always brand your calves.
An early morning sunrise.