Throw ’em for a loop
Roping is still the most popular way to catch and secure calves prior to branding. Increasingly, squeeze chutes and branding cradles (portable restraining devices that tilt on their side) are used in place of roping, as they’re more convenient and prevent unnecessary stress and injury to the animals. “Cradles are also used by ranches with small crews or those with less experience,” explains Curry. “It just makes things easier on man and beast.”
Down and out
Roping technique is a matter of personal preference and crew size. Some ranches just rope the head, while others use only a heeler, or a header and heeler. If just the head is roped, an un-mounted wrestler then throws the animal to the ground and ties all its legs together so the right or left hip or shoulder is exposed. Roping and branding teams must be carefully orchestrated to ensure the calf is thrown onto the correct side and that entanglements with the rope and other hazards are avoided. The roper’s horse drags the calf near the branding fire, and one or two team members then sit on the calf’s head and/or haunch to hold it steady.
On your mark
The irons are pre-heated in a wood- or coal- (or propane-) burning fire until glowing. When the calf is secure, a member of the branding team will carefully apply the iron. It’s crucial to use the correct amount of pressure; too much can result in pain, scarring, and infection, and branding on wet hide makes for a smudgy brand. “You learn by feel and sight, and you want to be sure you hit all ‘four corners,’” says Curry. “You need to rock the brand a bit, so that each outside point touches down.”
Free at last
Once the brand has been applied, the calf will be vaccinated for Blackleg, a fatal bacterial disease that affects the GI tract, as well as whatever other diseases are endemic to the region. The calves are also earmarked and castrated, if necessary, then untied to rejoin the herd.
Having a ball
Tradition dictates that the calf testicles (affectionately known as Rocky Mountain oysters, prairie oysters, huevos, or cowboy caviar) be cooked up at the post-branding feast, which is usually a barbecue. “A lot of guys just skin ’em and throw ’em on the fire, while others bread and pan-fry them,” says Curry. “No matter how they’re prepared, they’re just a part of the day.” Tastes just like chicken…really.