Branding is a family affair. Photo courtesy of David Zirnhelt

Ranch Musings: Rebuilding ranching culture

Regular columnist David Zirnhelt writes about his family’s branding weekend

David Zirnhelt

Observer Contributor

On the weekend past, we did our spring processing of cattle. It was a family affair, along with a dozen helpers, most with no experience.

They were invited because many hands make light work, especially if you are holding calves that weigh 100 pounds or so. It is a time to showcase part of our economy and culture.

That culture and economy is in transition, and grandma and grandpa (my wife and I) are transitioning away since we can’t do all the heavy work and we aren’t as quick as we used to be.

We began with a quick briefing on pain mitigation for the calves that required surgery (castration). This is commonplace and inexpensive now.

We subscribe to the use of traditional roping from the back of a horse with all the calves in a pen beside their mothers, who mostly seemed not to care that we were putting tags in their ears and giving inoculations for the major communicable diseases.

Roping is a skill often required to catch a calf or a cow that needs medical attention on the range.

This year, grandma sat at her usual spot keeping records and giving us the history if we needed it, filling syringes and making identification tags. By law, we need to have an ear tag which can be read by a radio frequency wand.

This is so that if down the line in the processing of that animal, there is a disease problem, it can be traced to our ranch. Traceability is a big thing these days!

A couple of the grandchildren started their own record keeping, asking for numbers so they could write them down.

Grandma is soon going to lose her job. “Not soon enough,” she says.

Now just why were there three numbered 417? They were calves who had the mother’s number as is normal, but which was not replaced when she became a mother herself in the herd.

And then the day after, when checking the pasture from where they had been grazing the day before branding, I discovered yet another 417 — same colour, but different calves that escaped processing. We will get those numbers replaced!

It was a fun day, as we have learned to take our time so we don’t unnecessarily stress the cattle. That is when people can get hurt, never mind the cows.

The most fun was watching the youngsters aged six to 10 years old with their own small lariats catch calves which outweighed them by double their weight. At least 20 times I heard, “Grandpa can you straighten the kinks in my rope” and “I want the loop bigger!”

It seems a more innocent contest, small child and small calf. You might make pets out of a few cattle, especially on a dairy farm, but there are just too many on most ranches to gentle so you can catch them easily.

One grandson wanted a unique bull calf left intact as a bull, but I had to take the time to explain that his mother’s conformation wasn’t great and she was an outlier by nature; whereas, we like our cattle to stay together for ease of management and for protection against predators. So, we couldn’t use him for a herd sire, even if he was the cutest one.

We explained to the novitiates to our “branding” that we had to have a very visible, permanent identifying mark, hence the brand, in order to put them out on the open range.

Cattle rustling still exists, and a clear brand is an unquestionable mark of ownership.

In time, probably, a less invasive technology will become popular, but for now, this is the law.

All in all, stepping back and letting the next generations take over is not so bad once you get used to it. I am learning, slowly. This is just a fork in the road to the golden years beyond.

David Zirnhelt is a rancher and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at Thompson Rivers University Williams Lake.

READ MORE: Zirnhelt: A trip down memory lane



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