The whole mystique of ranching invokes pastoral scenes of mother cows nursing calves, cowboys atop horses and pitchforks of heavy hay. But behind every dreamy scene or idyllic impression is the reality and truth of what life really is. Raising cattle in Montana would be a dreamy lifestyle that city dwellers would love to live. For the most part, it is all that and more. But let me tell you this: branding cows is dirty, stinky work. Which is why I prefer cooking. Cooking for branding, that is.
And the reality of branding is this picture: smelly, smoky (think: burnt hair) soggy or dusty manure (depending on where you step) and noisy, crazy pandelarium.
I suppose that some ranches have a pretty as a picture operation. Our ranch? It’s a “git ‘er done” picture. Rounding up the cow and calf is usually not on horseback but rather, on foot or four-wheeler. No pretense here– we are real, and it works better than the Hollywood version. David and his family have never embraced the cowboy image that makes a magazine spread.
So we round up the cows on four wheelers, on foot and sometimes horseback if someone wants to go to the extra work to catch one and saddle it. Once the cows are corralled, the next step is separation. This involves a process of herding/ scaring/pushing the moms to one corral while coaxing the babies to another, which eventually leads them to a barn, which eventually leads them to the chute, which takes them to the “treatment.” All this happens with several generations of Diehls and volunteers—kids, grandkids and friends who want to be “cow”boys for a day.
So if you don’t mind getting dirty, smoky, stinky and endure a bit of verbal abuse (cutting out calves can provoke a few angry commands) then you might just love it.
Me. I don’t love it. I don’t like to get dirty, I get my “feelers” hurt easily and I am not very brawny. All of which explains why I head for the kitchen duty.
Harken back: I remember the first time that David brought me to the branding event. (I was a city girl, remember?) I thought it barbaric. And every once in a while, I revisit that scene in my head—how the burning happens, the calf cries out and the ear is snipped (part of our brand.) Add to that, a vaccination, and oh, if you are a boy calf, you suddenly will become a steer by way of the “elastrator”– a simple device that “rubber bands” the jewels so that they eventuate into bits of lifeless flesh that returns to the soil. When I first saw the process, it was not so kind. A calf was emasculated with a knife, and the testicles saved for “Rocky Mountain Oysters”—which we women would bread and fry. And just so you know, if you must, they taste like chicken. Yes, chicken Nuggets, sort of. But alas, the risk of infection and the danger if reaching into a calf’s groin to retrieve the little gems no longer make it worth the little morsels that some consider a western delicacy.
So, once all this is completed, the calf is released and returned to its mom, and then gets the once over “smell and taste” test until mom is certain the calf is hers (since every calf we own is all black, I am in awe of the magic of God’s greater design.) They all smell of manure and burnt hair, so His plan works well for the cows. If cowboys had to pair them up again, I am not certain many men would enter this occupation. They simply would have no patience for the hormonal components of that task.
Once the happy reunion is complete, it seems that all is well for both mom and baby. They make their way to the hay or pasture as though nothing was amiss— whether it be ear tip or jewels, of both as it is for the males specie. (for those who are privately wondering why we castrate the male calves, you have never eaten “bull hamburger”. And if you did, then you would never wonder again.) Only a few calves “make the cut” to remain bulls– those are either sold as breeding components for other ranches, or we keep them to help keep our ladies pregnant. If you get what I mean.
Now before I end painting this picture for you, I want to tell you about the journey to the chute, the pathway to the treatment. For many years, the task of holding a calf was manual labor, and not for the faint of heart. It requires that one must grab a calf’s hind leg, gripping a kicking, shaking and sometimes slickery hoof and dragging the surprisingly strong little animal until you could get your partner to his part. Doing this feat requires a fair amount of brute strength and certain courage. Once the leg is in firm grip, the calf is pulled to center arena, where another “cow” boy secures the front end, with knees into the neck and front leg turned so as to be immobile. This isn’t always a ballet, for often one or both ends can wriggle loose of the holds and take out a few pieces of flesh, a tooth, or inflict a few contusions on the cowboys. Our son in law, Trinity, was the recipient of a precision strike to his front tooth. Not only did the hoof extricate the tooth, but catapulted it, root and all, to the pit of his stomach, never again to be seen (or at least I think that is the story.) Hence for Trinity, this began a many year process of flippers, bridges and eventually, bone graft and implant to make his smile pretty once again.
So greater wisdom, or, more likely, older age prevailed, and now we make use of a branding “table.” Not to be confused with the lunch table, this is a contraption wherein the calf is pushed down the chute and squeezed into t pivoting table that secures the baby for the treatment. Kindly, it holds the calf in position, exposing all necessary parts and pieces for branding, clipping, injections and, for the males, jewel banding (Google “elastration.”)
So by now, perhaps you can understand why I prefer the job of cook? I’d much rather endure bacon grease, flour caked, and apron-stringed decorum for my branding day. And because we usually have volunteers enough to straddle the gates and push/pull the tails, it works fabulously. It is a long day that ends with tired bones, terrible dirty jeans and not a few bruises and nicks. For me, the worst damage is a full dishwasher or sink full of dirty dishes, all of which make me happy to be the cookie.
And although I’ve posted a picture of me with a vaccine gun, let me inform you that it was posed. Completely posed, because the only shooting that I did on that day, was on the other side of a camera. Because in spite of the romance of the cowboy life, my romance remains firmly ensconced in the kitchen, which is why I volunteer for cooking duty every time. My favorite contribution this year to our hamburger feast, Grandma Marge’s Baked Beans with a whole pound of bacon added — because the extra calories will not go to waste (or to the waist on this hardworking day.)
And I think I will keep it that way. Which makes everyone dirty, happy, tired and hungry.
And me? Happy, tired, clean, and … appreciated. Which is good enough for me.