Monday, October 3, 2011

An old-fashioned calf branding party

I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me with the same line that Linda Byrum approached me with about a week ago. "I don’t know if you’d like to or not, but we’ve got something that would make an interesting story in the paper."

Linda told me that she and her husband Mark, who live about a dozen miles west of Agar in rural Sully County, were going to have an ‘old fashioned calf branding’ that weekend and she was inviting me to come along. This lead held interest to me not only because it would make a good story for the paper, but also because it gave me an excuse to get to ride my horse all day.

So, last Friday, September 23rd, I loaded my gelding, Soda Pop, into my trailer and made my way to Mark and Linda’s place to stay the night.

When I arrived just after dark, there was a camp fire going and several other horse trailers were already parked in their yard.

Quirt riding his mule named Billy Sue, leading the troop over
the range. The Missouri River is seen in the background.

Linda came over and met me, with flashlight in hand. After a warm greeting, she attempted to introduce me to a few of the people who had come. After a while of waving flashlights in each other’s faces to see, we decided to wait until morning light for proper introductions.

I did, however, remember the name of four and a half-year-old cowpoke John because of his unique introduction; he told me that if I had any questions (because this was my first calf branding) to come to him because he knew "mostly everything."

Later on, I learned that the groups who had come were friends and had traveled from as far as Rapid City and Wyoming for the weekend. Mark’s son, Ty and his wife, had also come.

On Saturday morning, we all woke and readied our horses for the day’s work. We trailered the horses a distance before parking on the edge of a field that led into a pasture. Then we mounted our horses and traveled several miles up and down steep hills, through ravines, across creeks and rough country that could be traversed only by horseback.

Linda had initially intended to walk the distance because she hadn’t ridden horse in a long time, but members of our group who knew the territory talked her into riding anyhow – she later said she was glad for that. My friend John rode a little pony that wasn’t even half the size of the other horses, but he and that pony were prepared to blaze the trail for the rest of us if need be. A young cowgirl by the name of Alomar rode a two-year-old colt, and her parents were constantly checking to see that the horse behaved for her. Also Cade, a three-year-old, rode the entire way on the saddle in front of his mom, Becky, playing with three toys; two knights and a charger horse.

Along the way, Mark and a few of the other men discovered some stray cow/calf pairs and stayed behind to round them up. Mark told Quirt, an 11-year-old cowboy riding a mule by the name of Billy Sue, to lead the rest of us onward towards the herd.

The closer we got to the Missouri River’s edge, the more debris we noticed – from bottles and trash to drift wood and even an old metal boat.

We rode about an hour before we stopped at the corner of a barbwire fence that had been slightly reinforced with tall pieces of driftwood to look sturdier than it actually was. There was a pit dug in the ground with a pile of rocks and driftwood beside it.
Riders bringing the cattle.
While the rest of the troupe rode out to round up the rest of the cattle herd, Linda, Cade, Becky and I stayed to prepare the fire pit, unpack the pack horse, gather water from the river, and keep the few head of strays that the men had brought.

In the old western movies, cattle round ups are always portrayed as a noisy event, with cows lulling, and hooves pounding across the ground with a loud noise. However, when they brought the herd of 60-70 head over the hill, they hardly made a sound. A few of the cows cried for a few minutes after they came to a stop, but soon quit.

Several slowly rode their horses through the cattle while twirling their lariats to warm-up and get the cows used to the commotion.

Once ready, they threw a lasso out and snagged a calf around the neck. They began walking the calf out of the herd until the critter realized what was happening. Then the cowboy (or cowgirl) quickly dallied the rope around his saddle horn and drug the baby bovine away from the rest so another rider could lasso the calf’s hind feet.

With more than a bit of team work, they would bring the calf closer to the fire pit, where the branding irons were being heated. When close enough, two people would run up to the calf, throw it on the ground, and hold it while they repositioned the rope from around the calf’s head to its front feet and shifted the rope on its back legs if necessary. During this time, the riders would reposition their horses, if need be, so they could have a better hold on the calf.
Mark Byrum brands a calf the 'old fashioned' way.
His son, Ty, helps hold the calf still with his foot.
Mark did the branding – a lazy M bar lazy W – and others helped castrate the bull calves, vaccinate, and dehorn.

This process was repeated many times – sometimes the lasso missed its mark the first time and several throws were required before the calf was brought down.

It was my job to hold the cattle to the corner and not let them escape, since Soda is not yet trained to work cattle with a lariat. A bit of a relaxed job, it gave me time to get pictures for the Watchman. 

The sun was setting by the time we finished with the last calf and packed up camp, and it was dark by the time we rode back to the trailers.

I hadn’t thought about snakes at all until the return trip when we heard a rattlesnake in the grass ahead of us. Alfred shot it with a pistol and then cut the rattles off to keep.

Quirt rides through the cattle to get them calmed down
and used to horses riding amongst them.
Although I was unable to be there, Mark had a second bunch of cattle in another pasture that the group worked on Sunday afternoon. The weekend before, they had done another bunch.

Before leaving on Saturday night, Mark and Linda both thanked me for coming and offering the bit of help that I had. I quickly thanked them in return and asked that they remember me come next year when they do it again.

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