Last weekend, I had the honor of attending a friend’s family branding to take pictures. I say honor, because it is. Multiple generations of family have worked the ranch and lived on that land, and the family takes that legacy very seriously. Today, four generations of the family live and work on the ranch, which is operated as a working cattle ranch. They run about 450 head of Angus/Simmental cattle and grow hay and wheat and occasionally some other grain crops. The ranch’s extensive landscape also provides habitat for antelope, deer, birds and various other critters that scurry, slither and soar.
Branding is a tradition in this country as old as ranching itself, but the practice dates back to the ancient Egyptians. In the unsettled West, before there were fences, brands were the only way a rancher could tell his cattle apart. Today, brands are still used as a way to identify cattle and prevent theft. Ear tags can fall out or be taken out. Lip tattoos are not easily identifiable in the field. So traditional brands remain. States have strict laws for branding cattle. Brands must be registered, and brand inspections are required before you can ship animals out of county or sell them.
That’s a traditional definition of a brand. But today’s ranching families also believe in the modern concept of a brand – a series of ideas and tools used to distinguish a company from competitors and create a lasting impression in the mind of consumers. The cattle brand is a living symbol of the ranch, its legacy and identity and its future. So it was indeed an honor to be asked to take part in the annual branding – they trusted me enough to not screw up their image!
The morning was cold and foggy. It felt other-worldly as Wyokiddo and I made the trek to the ranch, situated east of Cheyenne. Wyokiddo was given a seat in the pickup that held the food, drinks and tools needed for the morning. I was given free rein to roam about and take some photos. I quickly got lost in the textures surrounding me. Fringed chaps, worn work gloves, fraying rope ends, the soft brown eyes of a calf, the bright orange glow of the branding irons in the fire.
Put simply, the morning was a sensory adventure. The makeshift corral was a heady combination of wet earth, manure and smoke. The delicate layer of fog left a fine sheen on everything and the slight chill kept everyone covered up as much as possible. Mother cows mooing and the roaring of the branding pot fire made intimate conversation impossible.
But really, no words were needed. Each person knew their job and did it without hesitation. Men on horseback roped the unbranded calves. Teams of two would flank the calf to the ground. One by one, each calf was branded, vaccinated and castrated, if necessary. Then the calves were released and returned to their moms. The entire process for each calf took less than three minutes. To an outsider, it would have looked like complete chaos. But it was a finely choreographed display of skill and tradition. There was no arguing, no whining, no unnecessary displays of machismo or one-upsmanship. Just friends helping friends.
That attitude is one of my favorite characteristics of the agriculture community. When a neighbor asks for help, you help. Not because there is something in it for you. You do it because it is the right thing to do. You do it because somewhere down the line you’ll need their help, too. These hard-scrabble folks have been abiding by the concept of “pay it forward” well before the idea ever became mainstream. You help and are helped in return because that is how a community works.
Someday, I hope to have my own brand, or body of work, through my writing and photography. Until then I’m proud to ride for the brand of the agriculture community and their heritage.
P.S. Here are a few of my favorites.