Branding: A Springtime Ranching Tradition – Part One

| May 3, 2011 | Reply

Becky Prunty Lisle | May 3, 2011 |

I sat down at the computer with the idea to whip out a nice, neat little blog about a ranchy spring-time theme. Simple, right? The process has ended up being reminiscent of the childrens’ book If You Give A Mouse A Cookie by Laura Numeroff; one thing led to another, and I’m finding myself unable to explore the topic in just one mere 700 word post. So, intrepid readers, to quote from a favorite movie: “prepare yourselves; it is beginning.” (Anyone that can guess the movie gets a gold star and extra recess.) 

Spring on the ranch is a magical time. The circle of life is renewed and we are reassured. The land comes to life around us as it sheds its coat of winter, and animal mothers bring their stumbling, wide-eyed babies to meet the awakening earth. All is new and bright and fresh, days are longer, warmer, and spirits are high. We balance through the winter, cussing the snow we shovel, while at the same time breathing relief and thanks for it, since more moisture means more grass, and more grass means healthier, happier cattle, and heavier calves in the fall.

Calves are the center of the ranch’s life cycle, from their creation when the bulls are turned out in the spring to weaning and shipping in the fall, and everything in between. The in-between can be a roller coaster, but one of the highs that keep us riding it is my favorite time of year: branding season. Branding was first practiced by the ancient Egyptians, and it remains the most universally effective method of marking livestock. Ear-tags can become hard to read and fall out, and I have yet to see a cowboy carry a microchip scanning wand into therodear.

(Quick history lesson: much of the cowboy and ranch culture of the Great Basin originated in Spanish California, including much of the terminology. Rodear is a verb, meaning ‘to surround.’ When cowboys rodear cattle, they do, in fact, surround them, with the purpose being to sort out cattle for various reasons. A virtual fence, horseback cowboys surround a bunch of cattle and hold them together– sometimes with the help of an actual fenceline, sometimes not– while other cowboys will ride into the herd and work out whatever cattle are needed. This practice was born out of necessity, since corrals aren’t always available to do necessary sorting. )

Our neck of the woods isn’t really woods at all; the Great Basin has probably been described most accurately as a sagebrush sea. Interspersed with rugged canyons and snow-tipped mountain peaks, it’s big, wide open country with thousands of cattle, and in the fall during gathering time, a brand is the most efficient, effective way for ranches to get sorted out who’s whose.

Most western states have brand laws that govern the transportation and sale of horses and cattle, and their success hinges upon the age-old tradition of branding. The west still has an element of wild in it, and branding your livestock is the best way to make sure they remain your livestock. (Just this morning, I saw a post on facebook about a stolen horse. Guess what: the horse didn’t have a brand. Describing a horse’s color, markings, and size can only get you so far; the chances of a brand-less horse being returned to its owner are slim to none.)

Not only are calves branded, but also (depending on the individual ranch’s management practices) vaccinated, castrated, and earmarked. Larger ranches that run thousands of mother cows have big enough full-time crews to get the job done themselves, and some might hire extra day-work cowboys to help get the job done, branding for days and weeks at a time. Still other ranches rely on the help of family, friends, and neighbors, much like an Amish barn-raising. For every region of cattle-country there is in the US, there are as many methods of branding.

In my next blog, I’ll talk a little bit (OK, maybe a lot) about the way we brand cattle, what it means for the horses we ride and for the horse industry as a whole…it’s synergy at its finest.

About the Author

6409d14cac8e2f98944d1b9291b77ae5Becky Prunty Lisle is a 5th generation Nevada rancher who earned her BA in elementary education. She works sporadically as a freelance writer amidst enjoying the adventures of marriage, motherhood, and the 21st century horse market. Becky can be contacted through the ranch website,


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Category: Lifestyle

About the Author ()

Cindy Corwin is the CEO/Owner of Horse Family Magazine and is specifically interested in giving back to equine communities and bringing families closer together in their love of horses.

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