As the days lengthen, drawing winter closer to spring, we begin readying ourselves for calving season, which officially starts for us April 1st and goes into June. In a normal year, eighty percent of the calves come in the first fifty days.
By the beginning of the third trimester, the cows begin showing large bellies. We have the cows in the very best pastures we have to ensure the fetus is getting the most it can. Cows, however, begin calving as early as two weeks before the official date. This year it has been surprising how many calves just appeared about a week into the season. Little calves bouncing around, lying hidden behind a bush, following their mother on shaky legs.
Branding season will begin toward the end of April and go through the middle of June. The Ranchlands branding crew made up from all ranches travels from one ranch to the other. Neighbors come, we go help them, and we have guests from all over arriving to help. For some guests, it has been many seasons that they have come to help, and for others, it’s the first time. For us who work on the ranches, it is one of our favorite times.
What I like about it the most is how everyone works together as a cohesive team. As we get the fire and brands hot, syringes loaded, everyone is standing around talking. The herd stands around the branding wagon, held by the water in the water trough nearby and a team on horseback surrounding them. Then the nod is given to the first team of ropers, and the first calf comes in. Suddenly, everyone is moving everywhere at once. For someone who has not experienced it before, it seems chaotic and dangerous with calves jumping around on the end of long ropes, horses coming in one after the other.
Everywhere calves are laying on the ground on their sides being worked on. Their mothers are usually waiting just outside the circle of work, waiting anxiously for their calf to be let go, and when it is, she takes her back into the herd and begins smelling and licking her all over. The calves keep coming and coming. The crew just keeps going, like a smooth-running motor, gears all completely in sync. Before long, half the herd has been done and then… it’s over and the beans are being put on the fire for lunch.
Everyone is covered with all kinds of dirt. Everyone is smiling, talking, laughing. Everyone is hungry. The beans are smashed in a bowl sitting in the branding fire, and people grab a spoonful to lay into tortillas which have been heated on the hot coals on the ground, also from the branding fire. Fresh tomatoes, onions, and cheese complete the taco. Fruit is for dessert with cookies that Madi Phillips usually makes. Then, before you know it, legs are sticking out from under trucks where people have crawled under to take naps in the shade. No one is talking, except one or two who are not sleeping. The cattle drift off slowly, gangs of calves running around. The horses stand sleeping, resting. The afternoon is at its hottest, the sun hanging in the middle of the sky.
Another branding will be behind us. Many more still ahead. We trot home in groups, scattered across the prairie, everyone talking, horses moving easily at a slow gait. But no matter how sore or tired we are, how many welts we have from kicks, we ride together happy and satisfied knowing that not many people get to do what we just did.