Road foundered

In these journal excerpts from a recent 2,500-mile branding trip, rancher John Welch relates the ups and downs of branding cattle in unfamiliar country.

In the wake of the 2011 Texas drought, thousands of cows were loaded on trucks by many different ranches and shipped out of the Lone Star State for points north. Come spring, all those cows had calves, and these calves required brands prior to weaning, shipping, and sale. Two ranches, the Tongue River and Spade, threw in together for 10 days in April to form a cowboy convoy that drove and rode about Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana and branded nearly 1,400 calves along the way. Tongue River’s top man, Tom Moorhouse, and Spade Ranches’ John Welch each recruited a couple cowboys and loaded 12 horses, half a cord of mesquite wood, eight saddles, six bedrolls, two teepees, 400 pounds of alfalfa cubes, 200 pounds of grain, bridles, blankets, chaps, a branding pot, and irons.

For meals, they hired Charlie Ferguson, a camp cook from Torrington, Wyo., who cooks for many of the big Texas ranches during spring and fall works. He hooked onto his chuckwagon-converted two-horse trailer and met the crew of six traveling cowboys at a ranch near 10 miles south of Harrison, Neb., for the first day’s work. The trip—though motorized—harkened back to a day when cowboys and their horses moved cattle north to greener pastures and stronger markets.

April 23, Harrison, Neb.

Today turned out to be a big day. Up at 4 a.m., breakfast at 5, roping horses at 5:20. We gathered 165 cows and 160 calves, stripped the cows off the calves, branded them, and trailed them back. Then we gathered 205 cows and 201 calves and branded the calves.

There were 12 men in the crew (six from south and six locals) and we finished the branding by 12:15 p.m. We figured that we’d branded 100 calves per hour. Not a record, but not bad for a bunch of Texans trying to use Nord Forks [a device that fits behind the head of a calf to help hold it while the ground crew vaccinates, castrates, and brands the animal] for the first time. After branding with them, everybody agreed they were good, if you knew how to use them. But I didn’t hear any Texans putting in orders for one.

After dinner, we gathered about 150 pairs and trailed them a couple of miles to a fresh pasture. It was hot and the calves were little, so it took a while, and it tried your patience. Then we loaded up Charlie’s chuckwagon camp, loaded our horses, and moved to the ranch north of Lusk, Wyo., where we are going to brand in the morning. We got there at 6:15 p.m., and we had Charlie’s wall tent up, the stove set up and wood burning by 7. By 7:30 we were eating fajitas with banana pudding for desert. Not much visiting after that, as we were pretty whipped. Since we are going to spend two nights here, Peter Robbins, Quentin Gass, and I all set up our teepees for some indoor living.

April 24, Lusk, Wyo.

Breakfast at 5 a.m. Quentin roped our horses out, and we left camp at 5:30. Our bunch (Tom, Quentin, Peter, Me, Jason Pelham, and Walter Schalla) and Wayne Baize (an exceptional Western artist and photographer) were going from North to South, and Travis (the man who was pasturing our cows) and his crew were coming from the South end. We tied in with them and had the cows and calves gathered and penned by 8 a.m. We elected not to strip the cows off, because we were in a big pen and did not want to use the Nord Forks. We branded 155 calves and turned everything out at 9:15 a.m. There were 11 of us on the crew. After trailing the cattle back to the pasture (about three miles) and pairing them up, we loped back to the camp and ate dinner at 11:30 a.m.

After we ate, we decided to do some sightseeing, so we all drove over to Fort Robinson in Crawford, Neb. and saw where Crazy Horse was killed by the guards. This was also where the Northern Cheyenne were captured after breaking out of the reservation in Oklahoma and fighting their way back to their native country, killing about 40 settlers on the way. They were locked up at Fort Robinson but escaped and were run down again. Many chose to die fighting rather than surrender. We got back to camp by 6 p.m., ate another great supper prepared by Charlie, and then to bed after getting ready to tear out early in the morning for Broadus, Mont.

April 25, Lusk, Wyo.

Staying on our regular schedule, we ate breakfast at 5 a.m. then tore down our camp. By 6:15 we had Charlie’s wall tent, stove, and all other equipment loaded in his pickup and horses roped out and loaded. We pulled out for Broadus, but on the way we detoured to Devil’s Tower. It is a big mountain of lava rock about 860 feet tall and a Native American ceremonial site.

We went on to Broadus, got a flat fixed, and ate dinner. While there, we met one of the neighbors, who told us all about how tough this country was, that a blizzard would wipe you out every 10 years, and in between you could expect drought—they put me and Tom on suicide watch for the rest of the day and night.

April 27, Broadus, Mont.

After a night of high winds that blew my teepee over on me about midnight, we had our 5 a.m. breakfast. Quentin roped out horses out for us, and we rode off about 6:15. This day’s cows were in about a two-section pasture, and we scattered riders and had the cattle thrown together by 7:30 a.m. As we penned them, it started to sprinkle, and after we had stripped off about 100 cows, we decided to go to camp, drink a cup of coffee, and see what the weather might do.

The rain picked up, and by 11:30 a.m. we ate dinner and decided it had rained about a half inch and that there would be no branding today. We left the cattle up in a trap overnight and fed the hay, hoping to brand in the morning.

April 28, Broadus, Mont.

When I got up at 4 a.m., it was in the 30s and had rained off and on all night. We had gotten over an inch of rain, and it was still coming down. We decided we better try to get out and leave the last day of branding for the folks at the ranch to do. We pulled out of the headquarters by 7:35 a.m. with a big four-wheel drive tractor leading the procession. It took an hour to make the first 14 miles of dirt road, but we got there. At that point, the road looked good enough that we took the chains off, and the tractor turned around.

Once we got to the blacktop, we headed south. By the time we got down to Gillette, Wyo., the rain had turned to snow, and it was sticking to the road pretty good. A couple of the Texas cowboys commented that they didn’t particularly care to work in a country that snowed that hard so close to May 1. I think you would have had about as much luck turning them around and sending them back north as you would driving a bunch of Texas steers north into a blizzard.

John Welch is a lifelong working cowboy and former president and CEO of the Spade Ranches.

American Cowboy Picture

Quentin and Walter in the Wyoming dawn.

"A blizzard would wipe you out every 10 years, and in between you could expect drought."

American Cowboy Picture

Quentin catching horses in the Montana sleet and snow. "We hated the cold but welcomed the moisture."

photos by Peter Robbins

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