Confession time……I city girl turned country girl was terrified of cows! Not just cows but bulls, steers (bull calves that are castrated at a branding) heifers (a female cow that hasn’t calved before) and calves, like the little guys. Big or small I was scared of them all! Which when you move to country is a great source of entertainment for our cattle farmer friends. For example before we had our place fenced for the horses we kept them at our friends the Abts and they have cattle. Steven being the joker he is proceeded to keep our horses in a pasture that just happened to be behind a pen of cattle. Ugh, how am I suppose to get to my horse with this pen of Andrea eating cattle in my way? Simple, I climbed up on the pipe fencing and in a shuffling motion I worked my way over to the horses. Ha Steven I made it and was able to totally avoid being attacked by the cows. When I was done loving my horse I repeat my same tact of climbing on to the pipe fence and working my way out of the danger zone. I went over to visit with Steven and Theresa before I left and Steven in his deep voice said “so did you make it safely over to your horse?” I replied ” of course, didn’t you see my spider man like moves to get there?” “Nope”, Steven replied “but I can tell by your clothes that you made it over there.” insert chuckle…. I looked down at myself only to see that the nice pipe fence had left 3 perfect horizontal rows of rust across my clothes when I was clinging to the fence for my life….not cool, not cool at all!!
I am not sure when my fear of cattle started I just knew that I was scared of them to the point where the hair on my arms stand up when ever there was a bovine near my safety bubble.
It was with mixed emotions that we headed over to my very first cattle branding at the Dykstra Farm. Grant had grown up with this all his life and had attended many of these and was an old pro. Me on the other hand was not a pro at all, in fact I didn’t know how I was going to survive a day surrounded by cattle. First line of defense, the perfect outfit, I mean we are going to a good old fashion cattle branding and I wanted to make sure I looked the part. With my cowboy hat, freshly pressed cowgirl shirt, new wrangles and shiny boots we headed over. I would later learn that nobody, well almost nobdy dresses like Gene Autry when they attend a branding. It is not a fashion show and work clothes are more the fashion. Although many of the ropers dress in this style but it is for a reason. Mental note for the next one, old jeans and a hoodie will do.
What I saw and heard when we arrived was a something I will never forget! The sounds and smells were almost over whelming to all of my senses and took me right back in time to the old west….or what I image it to be like. The cows were mooing, the calves about 230 of them were baling, the torches for the branding irons where heating them up, horses stood saddled and tied at the fence, some of the cowboys were throwing their ropes to practice for what was coming and the people young and old stood around visiting and laughing waiting for the work ahead.
Peter and Cecila Dykstra put on one of the best brandings around and from the amount of people there you could tell. The reason for branding livestock goes back thousands of years as a permanent mark can’t be removed way of identify what is yours. Some of these cattle would be going out to a community pasture and this is the way to identify them to each particular farm. The Dykstra’s use the brand Lazy left D over Y which means with a registered brand the placement is key. Also, when these cattle go to the auction market there is a brand inspector to make sure that stolen cattle are not being sold.
I have heard people say that brandings are cruel but to me this a lack of true knowledge of why these are done. The real work begins early in the morning with Peter and few select people sorting out the calves from their mama’s. This is not only done for the safety of the people involved as a 1200 lb mama cow is very protective of her young calf but to also check the herds health and to make sure that the calves being branded are healthy and are big enough. The ones that are not big enough are left with mom to grow and will get branded at a later time. What people have to understand is that these animals are the farmers lively hood and if they are hurt in any way it costs the farm. Peter personally over sees all of his cattle and in a way that amazes me! He knows which calf goes with which mom, who has twins and how easily they had those calves. To a farmer a good cow is priceless and they do everything to insure their safety. Peter’s daughters even joke that Peter remembers the cow’s birthdays but forgets theirs. It was with great pride that Peter let me name a calf and even as he grew when he was in a pen of 200 other steers Peter would point him out and say there’s Ruger
After all the calves have been sorted into their groups and the cows are placed in an adjacent pen to wait for their calves, it is time to start the branding. I made my way into the danger zone (well in my mind it was) and climbed up on to a round hay bale to watch the action below. The ropers mount up on their horses and the ground crew takes their place, its go time. The branding pen is a large pen that is clean and dry, the calves are brought in as a small group at a time. The ropers ride over to rope the calf trying to ensure that both back legs are caught and then they drag the calf over to the ground crew. The ground crew take over the calf and remove the rope and everyone springs into action. The calf is held in place as their vaccinations are given. Each person having a different colored marker for each vaccine to ensure that not one is missed. When the vaccine is given the mark is placed on the calf to show that they were done. The branders come over to apply the brand, which is one of the most important jobs as they have to be placed exactly. Then if the calf is a bull calf they are castrated, this would be where prairie oysters come from. It doesn’t take long at all and the calves are released and herded over to reunited with there mama.
As I watched from the safety of my bale I was handed a beer, now this is the life. I was fascinated by how everyone one knew and did the job they were given and after a couple of beers or what I like to refer to a liquid courage I found myself wanting to take part in all the action. Most everyone one there knew of my fear and I think when I spoke up to say I would like to help there were a few shocked people. Finishing off my liquid courage I climbed down from my very safe bale and went to stand by the gate that would open to allow me to enter all the action. I yelled at Grant who was working on the ground crew that I was coming in and to be honest I think his eyes doubled in size from surprise. I was taken over to the place where the ground crew regroups to wait for just the perfect one for me. Oh boy, more than once I wondered why did I open my mouth, seriously life was good on the hay bale. I was safe, enjoying visiting, and the beers were being handed up to me. This may have been a mistake, the adrenaline was causing the liquid courage to wear off. I couldn’t leave the pen though, I had to do this. I wanted to experience all that was a branding and fear or not I was about too. I ended up with Grant on one side of me and Peter and Cecilia’s middle daughter Nicole on my other. They were explaining to me how to properly hold the calf’s front leg. This is important to know, as I said before when they treat the calf they treat it quickly and it is important to hold their leg just right. Not so hard to hurt the calf, be in the right spot on the calf so that the needles can be given and so that you’re not in the way when the brands are being applied.
Okay here we go the calf that they had decided was for me was being brought over by the roper and before I knew it I was running over to take my place. The calves are held down on their side with a person holding the front leg in a bent position so the calf can’t kick out or get up and the back leg is stretched out for the same reason. It is important to know that even though these are calves they are strong and will fight not to have this done, so not weakening is very important. There have been people hurt badly from a calf that is not properly held. Grant and Nicole had coached me and throwing all caution to the wind I took my place on the calf holding his front leg. I was shocked at how strong they are and he almost got his leg away from me with the first protest. I held a little tighter and could feel my heart rate rising…..just one and then back to the bale. Or so I thought, I passed the test and held down a couple more. Look at me I am a cowgirl or so I thought till someone nicely informed that I need to move out-of-the-way and let the pros take over. Back the safety of the hay bale I went with a grin from ear to ear on my face. I was so happy that fear didn’t stop me and I was able to get in and take part of something that is truly a cowboy way of life.
When the branding was done supper was served and a feast it was. As Peter works to get the calves ready Cec prepares the meal for all the people who have spent the afternoon working up an appetite. After supper the prairie oysters are fried up (now one of my favorite things to eat if done correctly) and that night there was a cowboy that brought his guitar and entertained us with his old cowboy songs. Nothing could wipe the smile of my face for a few days after that, to me it was an amazing experience, one that I will never forget.
Since my first branding all those years ago, Grant and I have attended countless others. Being part of them is something I love and wait for the phone to ring in the spring to let us know where we will be helping out. As time has gone on my fear has started to leave and I can even be found giving vaccinations, marking and yep even cooking up the prairie oysters. I have learned that brandings are not only important for the cattle farmer but they are also a community event bringing family and friends together.
A couple of years ago when my friend Wendy and I were running steers into the chutes so that Grant and her husband Scott could rope, she turned to me and stuck out her hand. I looked at her for a minute then realized that she wanted to shake my hand. She said, ” congratulations Andrea I am very proud of you, you are no longer scared of cows.” I have to say that she is right but the fear is not completely gone as in you won’t find me in the middle of a hay-field surrounded by cows but I can diffidently be around them without having a panic attack.
Our daughter Meggie had a horse show on the same day as the Dykstra branding this year but as I type this I am waiting for it to be time to head over to their place to help with the ones that were not done at the first one. Its a mini branding but all the same it is a branding and that means hard work and fun and iced cold beer.
Have A Beautiful Day!