For every region of cattle country there is in the US, there is a preferred method of branding. Some use horses and rope calves, and some don’t, instead using a chute or calf-table. Around here, branding without horses is something closely akin to sacrilege. If for some reason you don’t have horses, you call someone that does.
Here, branding is generally done one of two ways. In one scenario, calves are separated from the cows, put into a perhaps 60 to 80 foot pen, then heeled and dragged to the fire. Ropers catch the calves by both hind legs, which makes it easier for the ground crew. Someone that drags a calf to the fire with only one foot caught creates more work for the ground crew since it’s harder to lay the calf down, and said roper will be liberally dosed with good-humored mockery, and probably owe a case of beer to the general cause. Once at the fire (which can be an actual sagebrush-fueled fire, a propane-fueled burner, or even an electric iron), the rider keeps the rope taut and the hind legs secure, while one of the ground crew will sit on the calf at the shoulder and hold the top front leg while the work is done. When it’s all finished, the roper lets the dallies go, and the calf is released to rejoin its mother.
(On a side note, the term “dally,” (meaning to quickly wrap your rope around the saddle horn when you’ve captured your prey), also came from the vaquero culture of Spanish California. As I understand it, it is derived from dar la vuelta, which literally translated means “give the revolution/circle.”)
In the other scenario—which is our personal preference– the calves and cows are left together in a larger pen. Ropers head the calves, and a second roper heels. This isn’t a speedy rodeo team roper run. In fact, the slower and smoother it is, the better. Calves can stand quietly at their mother’s side while ropers ease toward the bunch and artfully float a loop through the air. The calf is free to move off while the roper shortens up the length of rope between himself and the caught calf; the shorter the rope, the more controlled the handling will be for the heeler to make his shot.
Again, dallying on only one hind leg means harder work for the ground crew since it will be harder to lay the calf down. The ground crew moves in and lays the calf down, then moving the loop from the neck to the front feet. The riders then hold the calf still while the branding, vaccinating, earmarking, and castrating take place. When the work is done, ropers let their dallies go (or “pop their turns,” as the slang goes), and the calf jumps up and trots back to the herd. Ropers and ground crew trade off during the day, so everyone gets in on a little roping.
While a team roping rope is 30 to 35 feet long, a branding rope might be anywhere from 45 to 60 feet long, and usually with a smaller diameter and softer lay than an arena rope. (My personal preference is a 5/16 inch thick, 50 foot long, medium-soft lay nylon rope.) Every roper has their personal preference of rope size and material, including nylon, poly, cotton, and hand-braided rawhide riatas, but one thing that is standard around here is a slick horn, meaning that the horn is wrapped in leather (mulehide, elkhide, or chap leather, which all have different degrees of stickiness). As opposed to rubber, a slick horn allows the roper to slide rope when necessary, unwrapping a dally or two (but not all of them) to let the rope slip some. This makes it easier on cattle and rope horses alike, since a roper has more control than with a rubber horn wrap or being tied hard and fast (when the rope is firmly tied to the saddle horn like a rodeo calf roper’s).
And with that, I find myself reaching the dreaded word limit, because as childrens’ literature teaches us, every cookie deserves a glass of milk. Stay tuned for the sequel(s?).
About the Author
Becky 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, www.pruntyhorses.com.
– Photo from www.pruntyhorses.com