For generations, my area of western South Dakota has enjoyed the camaraderie and tradition found in helping neighboring ranches brand in the spring. It’s a social event with a cause; it’s a chance to catch up after winter, complete a major task of the year, and maintain an “open door” policy between neighbors.

Old veterans and young children alike take their turns roping, developing critical ranching skills in the next generation of both cowboys and horses. When a calf is roped by his hind legs, and drug out and wrestled (or flanked), his side is fully exposed, which makes branding, vaccinating, and castrating go efficiently. Typically, people fall into a specific job after working as wrestlers in their youth, and everything takes on a smooth flow that often results in 500 or more calves finished before lunch.

One challenge we face, with fewer and fewer children returning to family ranches, is finding enough young people to wrestle calves. As a result, some ranchers who are short of help use Nordforks—a metal contraption that holds the calf’s front end down while a roper holds the calf’s hind legs—or other methods that still allow for roping, but require less ground workers. I disagree with these methods because they are much harder on both cattle and crew. Furthermore, they eliminate the opportunity for young people and horses to learn traditional branding methods because it’s too risky to have an amateur involved for fear of injury to a calf or person.

For me, roping and dragging is the most fun way to brand with the least amount of risk for both the experienced and inexperienced crew members. Plus, inviting your neighbors onto your place keeps up the old tradition of letting everyone see everyone else’s cowherd before a brand is laid


witching to table branding several decades ago was a decision my family made based on efficiency and labor. Getting a crew together in our remote area of Wyoming meant inviting people that lived up to 100 miles away. We also found that when roping and dragging, inevitably a calf was branded in the wrong location, people questioned if they had given a shot, or someone would get rough with the livestock. For us, using a table ensures a quality job, proper animal handling, and more time for our other spring tasks.

Today our branding crew consists of between five and 10 people, and it’s easy to adjust the branding date. On a good day we average a calf a minute, and each year we spend a maximum of four days branding between our two operations. The mothers at each outfit also agree they much prefer cooking for 10 versus 50.

There are some drawbacks to a table: they don’t work well for very young calves, and with some models you have to “stand on your head” to castrate. It is also another piece of equipment that must be purchased, maintained, and set up. However, working on a calf’s head, either to ear mark, tag, or tattoo, is much easier with a table. It also eliminates the majority of the difficult physical labor associated with branding, and makes certain that each calf is worked singularly, reducing the chance of a mistake.

Charles and Heather Maude are newlyweds who both grew up ranching in the West. Their differing histories make for some interesting discussions regarding how to go about certain ranch-related tasks. Branding day is one area where they grew up doing things differently, and while both still have their preferred method, they appreciate the other’s. This spring, Heather’s family plans to rope and drag, as Charles’ family has done forever. But, Heather keeps offering the use of her family’s table if the need arises…

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