When I went to college in Kansas, my friends in other states thought I was in the country, even though I lived in a city the size of Missoula. When I moved to Havre, my friends in Kansas thought I was in the country. This weekend, driving 40 miles north of Havre to a branding on the ranch of Billy and Patty Greytak, I was in the country.
The day begins
I woke up before sunrise on the Saturday of the branding, as ranch life requires.
It was still before 7 a. m. when I reached the end of the gravel county road that ends in the Greytak’s yard.
I found my way into Billy Greytak’s shop where he and the rest of the day's riders and wrestlers — all neighbors, friends or family — were drinking coffee, telling stories and preparing for the day’s work.
Over the next half hour, everyone shifted outside to begin saddling up to go gather all the cattle out grazing.
Having no horse of my own, or any riding experience in the past 15 or so years, I watched the eight multi-generational riders disappear over the horizon and went to the house where Patty and her daughter Chris were cooking breakfast and preparing for the post-branding dinner.
We drank coffee and talked about living on the ranch since they bought it more than 30 years ago. Early on, Patty said, she liked having all sorts of animals on the ranch — cats, dogs, chickens — but the voracious appetites of the predators already on the land — coyotes, badgers, weasels — made that a painful and frustrating endeavour.
Chris had come up from Helena with her family, as she had for every branding since being reunited with Patty, her biological mother, after being adopted.
The cows come home
It wasn’t too long before I could tell the riders were returning from the increasingly frequent and loud sounds of distressed cattle as they were moved into corrals.
I saw several people doing their best to separate the year’s new calves and the rest, to part the sea of black Angus. It looked easier when Moses did it.
Working several waves of cattle through gates and chutes over nearly an hour, the two groups were fully separated, much to their distress.
Toward the end of the day, Billy told me about how, years ago, the children of ranching families used to get really excited about branding season. Brandings were the social event of the year.
And there are still younger generations who continue the ranching life.
Billy said he thought that 4-H, for example, does a really good job of keeping children interested in and a part of rural traditions.
Bob Kaul is helping his son, Chris, and daughter-in-law, Janice, get a ranch set up just down the road from the Greytak place.
Chris and Janice both work full-time in Havre, so Kaul watches over the ranch several days a week.
They plan on, within five or so years, moving to the ranch full time.
While Bob and Billy are confident that ranching will always be a part of Hi-Line culture, it is changing in some worrying ways.
Now it begins
The prior cow-splitting team then focused on keeping the cows away from their calves and getting them down a chute where they can be sprayed down to clean off any parasites they may have picked up out in the fields.
With the parents taken care of, it was time to move on to the real purpose of the day, branding the calves.
Kaul fired up a propane-fueled branding iron heater, while the calves grouped themselves on either side of the pen and syringes were filled.
Those who could ride and rope mounted up and began roping calves by their back legs, dragging them into the middle of the pen, where the rest of the group took turns either catching the calf's head in a forked metal bit on a rope or just piling on top of the animal.
The metal fork was easier. Once the animal’s head was caught, its body was stretched between the head rope anchored in the ground and the rope on their foot, still being kept taut by the rider. Once pulled, the calf lost its balance and fell on its side, right where the brand-wielder needs them.
When the forks were occupied or just didn’t get a good fit on the calf’s head, a few people had to do whatever necessary to get the calf on its side: football-style tackles, tail-pulling techniques, or getting flipped around in the dust for a few minutes, wondering how this calf got so strong, and why it won’t just relax.
Eventually, when wrestling a calf, the goal is to have one person on the back, holding one leg in both hands, pushing the lower leg away with one foot, while using the other to make sure the little thing doesn’t squirt gooey green cow crap all over you.
I realized at this point that the cow “patty” one might think of is actually just the dried result of the mint chocolate chip milkshake-looking substance I saw all over the ground and cow’s hides.
While I took that precaution at Mr. Kaul’s recommendation, no calf attempted to squirt on me, though plenty farted their hearts out.
Once a calf was down, about a half dozen people descended on the animal, sticking syringes up noses and behind ears, slicing off ear-tips and, of course, marking the animal’s hide with the designated symbol of that ranch, the brand.
This branding was more traditional than the way most ranchers practice these days.
The more modern method is much more assembly line-like, with calves being run down a chute onto a table that mechanically flips over and allows a rancher to do what needs to be done without all the wrestling, dirt, kicking young calf legs and butthole covering.
The process is more convenient and requires fewer helping hands, but there are drawbacks.
For one, Billy Greytak said the old way is faster. Throughout this branding, there were regularly three or four calves being wrestled and worked on at a time.
Another reason the old way was preferable is the community involvement.
As Billy explained, the branding is not only an order of business on the farm. It is a way for people who live far from each other, and even farther from most other things, to come together, help each other out and have a good time.
Despite being separated by acres and acres of empty land, these families end up knowing their neighbors better than most people living in an apartment building.
As ranchers start to near retirement age, they face difficult decisions about what to do with the ranch. Some just work through it.
Billy said his father kept ranching until he was 95 years-old.
The most preferable post retirement option would be for a family member or friend to take over the ranch, though, as Billy said, that option is becoming less available.
The remaining choices are to sell to a corporate ranching outfit, a Hutterite colony or a farmer that might only be interested in how the land could be used to milk government subsidy money through the Conservation Reserve Program.
The last option is useless.
The other two would at least allow the land to be useful, though they lack community involvement.
Where family ranches help out each other, the work on corporate or Hutterite farms is all done internally.
Corporate farms use their employees only and don’t allow anyone else to participate, worrying about liability issues and other corporate legal jargon.
Do you think a corporate farm would let a newspaper reporter come in to wrestle calves and wield a brand? Not likely.
The close-knit Hutterite colonies are similarly closed off.
That and their collective unpaid working agreements allow to work fewer hours in the day, which irks some of the ranchers who regularly work from before sunrise until after sunset to make a living.
With these options, it makes sense that ranchers like Billy’s dad would work to the end. When every possible choice would help continue the decline of the lifestyle they were born and bred into, there is no choice but to keep going.
After roping, releasing and branding nearly 200 head of cattle, with a few beer breaks throughout, the day’s work came to an end in the early afternoon.
While cattle wranglers reunited freshly marked calves with their equally distressed parents, Patty and the kitchen crew set up the staple ending to any decent branding, a big delicious dinner.
Multiple generations of several families gathered in the same shop that started the day for roast beef, cheesy potatoes, macaroni salad, rolls and finally, a pile of Patty’s family recipe rhubarb custard pie.
A half dozen tables were filled with people taking turns between getting the food in and the stories out.
You can hear the energy return. As the meal goes on, the laughs get louder and spread through the garage.
The conversations continued as people moved from their dinner tables to take in the warm sun. It’s probably the warmest day so far this year, a pleasure to be out in.
Slowly people start breaking away, headed home, but not before setting up plans for the rest of branding season.
Next week, the crew will head over to Chris Kaul’s place to take care of his small but growing herd, then lend a hand to Billy’s brother Tom.
Family members started loading up furniture from the house into a horse trailer to be taken a new house Billy and Patty recently bought in Havre.
Billy said Patty’s been telling him she wants to just move into town, but he just can’t do that yet.
He’s still got some ranching to do.
As far as the future of ranching on the Hi-Line, despite the challenges the ranchers face, Billy doesn’t see any decline going too far. It is after all “the way you get the money off” of “this grass. ”
“I don’t think it’s going to slow down a lot, ” Billy Gretak said. “It might be slowing down a little bit, but not much.
“Other than that, I don’t know. ”.