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Branding gives Easterner a taste of Western living

 

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Since coming to Montana from Indiana, I have experienced several new things good and bad that I will never forget.

I went to the lutefisk dinner, Glacier National Park, the walleye dinner, and I have endured streets without stop signs. My opinion of lutefisk is better left unsaid, I can't wait to go back to Glacier Park, I'm still waiting for the next walleye to get in my belly, and the lack of stop signs has prepared me well for my next career as a figure-eight track race-car driver.

But none of these compare to the attack on your senses that is caused by a cattle branding.

When I was given the assignment to go and take pictures of a branding at the Donny and Marla Boyce ranch, I had mixed feelings.

On one hand, I thought, "What a great opportunity to make some great pictures." Conversely, I was not sure what exactly I was getting myself into.

Coming from a county in Indiana where there are more pigs than people, I had never thought much about the act of making a permanent mark on a calf to let all the world know it is yours. But here in Big Sky country, where the cattle play right alongside the deer and antelope, I see the necessity of the brand.

Upon arrival at the Boyce ranch nestled in the Bear Paw Mountains about 13 miles south of Havre I was greeted by the throngs of cows calling in vain for their calves to return to them. The cows together with their calves created a sound that rose up from the corrals like a grand bovine chorus.

Before making it to the corrals, I was met by Marla. She came from the house wiping her hands on her apron, preparing them to greet me and my wife, Stephanie. With a bubbly personality she introduced herself and led us to the corrals to meet Donny.

In the corral there were about 90 calves, restless and unsure, huddled in the corner opposite several dozen people who all seemed sure of their duties. With syringes, branding irons, coffee, vaccines, ear tags and lassos all in hand, they looked to have a job and purpose. The only thing they were waiting on was the brute force.

Donny said that everything was ready and they would be starting as soon as the Montana State University-Northern wrestling team got there.

The wrestling team!

What do they have to do with this?

But it makes perfect sense. Who better to wrestle a 150-pound calf to the ground and hold it there than a person who has trained for years to do just that. One by one the wrestlers trickled in, and without a word the branding began.

Within minutes, three men on horses had lassoed and delivered about 10 calves to be put through the paces. Scattered across the ground were two people holding down each calf, one securing the head and a front leg, the other person the hind legs.

I must admit this was happening a lot faster than I had imagined. There were people and animals everywhere. It was the most perfect form of organized chaos I had ever seen.

There were people vaccinating, castrating, ear tagging and branding. It looked as though it took weeks to choreograph. It didn't. It couldn't have been planned. Every calf was different and you never knew where the next one would be coming from.

I stood back and watched, taking it all in. The sight of the mountains in the background, the sounds of cows calling for their young, the brisk wind coming down the hillside and the foul stench of burning hair and skin. This is what my wife and I had imagined when we came to Montana.

Real cowboys, working their cattle in much the same way that generations before them had, in a land for the most part unspoiled by man.

After about 90 minutes, round one was over. Eighty-nine of the approximately 200 calves were finished and returned to their mothers.

Time for round two. A dozen or so guys and girls mounted horses and were off into the hills to round up the next batch of cows and calves. I too was off to the hills to take pictures, only wishing I had a horse.

Over the hilltop they came, a mini-stampede followed by people on horses, and two dogs. I have never seen dogs so excited. They just couldn't get enough of those cows.

Into the corrals, and then cows and calves separated and the bovine chorus began again. And again the ground was covered with squirming calves and people trying to hold them down.

I could easily live the rest of my life without ever eating lutefisk again. But I will always fondly remember my experience at the Boyce ranch.

What a great day.

 

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