The Cowboy Way
The Salsbury Ranch, Malta, MT – I flew to Montana from Frederick to visit my new granddaughter Leeila, my daughter Mary and her husband Cody. They took me to one of the spring highlights known as branding.
The mother cows, having completed their gestation period begin birthing in the early spring. The calves then need to be branded for identification purposes. Cattle rustling is still problem in this great northern state and the small critters, without a brand, are the prime targets.
The scene looks like a massive and dangerous operation complete with red-hot branding irons, men running around with needles and knives, as well as what looks like a calf roping and tackling contest all jumbled together. I stood by the fence watching and managed to sort things out.
First, cowboys ride among the mothers and little ones separating and grouping the moms from the kids. A loud deafening bellowing ensues from the both groups. Then a state of calmness descends as the animals settle down.
The cowboys, from neighboring ranches gather together in jocularity and camaraderie. Each is expected to help at other ranches during this very busy season. They mount their horses, ride in among the calves and, somehow, slip a rope under their two back legs, pull swiftly up and drag the calf out of the enclosure.
Waiting for them are two tacklers. They are usually high school students who tackle the calf and bring it to the ground. Many are football players, but some are tough, seventh and eighth grade girls who also perform the task.
The calf is immobilized by these youngsters. Once they have the animal on its side, one grabs the back end and sticks one foot between its legs and on the inter-thigh while holding the other leg firmly in their hands. The second wrestler has the head with a knee on the neck and a hold of the front hoof.
Once the calf can’t move the following series of events occur in no particular order, usually performed by an older gentlemen – too old to tackle calves, which are most people under the age of 30.
Two people find a calf armed with what looks like one of those attachments that looks like something one sprays Miracle Grow with, but instead of a hose there is a plunger at one end and a sharp needle at the other. Each calf is vaccinated against bacteria that causes “scours,” the local term for diarrhea. Following the shot, a red or yellow stripe is painted across the area to make sure the calf is not vaccinated twice.
Then a branding iron, superheated from a propane tank is placed against the side of the calf. The brand is burned into the hide. I watched about 400 of these animals being identified, and I did not notice any sign of pain during the procedure. The hide is just too thick.
Another procedure is the removal of the testicles. A man with a small knife makes an incision and drags out the testicles and both long white stingy spermatic cords. The area is then sprayed with a disinfectant. Again, after watching, there was no sign of discomfort from the calves and, surprisingly, no blood. The “calf balls,” as they are called here, are then placed into a bucket of water. More on them later.
Another two cowboys wander among the calves and, using a long hot pointed rod, burn out the horns on each side of the head. Then, with a nod to each other, the teens release the calf and it wanders off in search of its mother. They then line up to tackle the next calf.
The highlight of the day comes when the ladies present a fabulous feast for those who worked. Homemade pies, pulled beef, salads, pop (soda) and beer engorge the hungry workers. The teens will get $50 for about three hours of very hard work. The rest will just eat the food as they will be expected to all show at the next ranch for their branding operation.
The testicles, or Rocky Mountain oysters, are taken to the kitchen to be cleaned. A clear membrane must be peeled off each one, a difficult and frustrating job. They are then rolled in flour or another mixture and deep fried and served as an appetizer.
No, I don’t know what they taste like.
…Life is good. . . . .