Monday, May 16, 2011

Branding in Saskatchewan

I returned home yesterday from a weekend spent in Eastend, Saskatchewan with my sister Jocelyn. My parents and I made the trip out on Friday and woke up early Saturday to get to work. The job was branding about 450 calves at her boyfriend's ranch, Bar 4 Bar.

Cows and calves on the way to the corrals

At this particular branding, things are done in the true old cowboy style. The are no chutes, no electricity, and stress on the animals is minimal. They are gathered by experienced ranch ropers on horseback. Branding is truly a community affair in places like this. At the Bar 4 Bar branding, friends and neighbors gathered to help the family and contribute to either sorting, branding, roping, wrassling, tagging, vaccinating, or castrating the calves. Here's how the process works:

Step 1: Sorting. Calves and their mothers are brought into a large pen where one group at a time of about 100 animals is sorted into the branding corral. Most of the cows are sorted off to make more room in the branding corral, but a few stay to calm the calves. Once the group is settled into the corral, the roping begins.

(top) Dad in his roping mindset. (bottom) throwing a loop

Step 2: Roping. We had about 4 or 5 ropers on horseback going at one time. Their job is to seek out calves that are not yet branded and rope their back legs. For the lowest amount of stress on the calf, and ease of handling for the ground crew, they catch the back legs midway between the hooves and the hock (back knee). Calves are then dragged 10-20 feet on smooth grass over to the working area.

Step 3: Wrassling. There will be two people waiting to restrain the calf as it is brought in. One person holds the back legs apart to prevent the animal from kicking or injuring one of the workers, and the other person holds the front end down to help the animal stay calm and branders, vaccinators, and taggers do their jobs quickly.

Jocelyn on the back end and me vaccinating, Mom standing by

Step 4: Branding. The branding irons we used were kept in a wood fire when not in use. To brand the calves, the iron is placed in the desired location (in this case, left rib) and held for a couple seconds. The skin should never bleed or catch fire. Although this seems like a process that would hurt a lot for a human, the ain tolerance of cattle is very different. They will usually let out a short beller if anything, and be up and running the next second. The brand will grow with the animal and remain visible even after their hair has grown over it. This ensures that a rancher can always keep track of his cattle, and if a strange animal ever enters his herd he can trace it back to the owner.

Step 5: Vaccinating. This was my job for the day. My mom and I ran the needles- mine was a vaccination for BVD (Bovine Viral Diarrhea) and hers was Tasvax 8. 8-Way vaccines like Tasvax 8 protect against Clostridial diseases in cattle, such as blackleg, lockjaw, botulism, and malignant edema. Diseases like this can severely impact and even wipe out herds if not vaccinated for. Shots are given in the neck where they are farthest away from the quality cuts of meat (loin, hip, etc.). The shot I was giving was subcutaneous, or "under the skin," so I made sure each shot was given by pulling up or tenting the skin and inserting the needle at the base. Once both vaccines are given, we would make a colored mark with a grease pen on the calf just to keep track of the ones that had received their shots.

Me filling my vaccination gun

Step 6. RFID Tag. One person's job at the branding was to give each calf a small button tag in their left ear. These tags are readable by scanning machines, and will show the scanner the animal's information. It's another way to ensure your meat can be traced back to all its owners.

Step 7. Castrating. This is only done on male calves that the rancher has decided he wants to turn into steers. The person with this job makes an incision in the scrotum and pulls the testicles out. A disinfecting spray is used on each calf and the knife between uses to ensure no infection arises. Have more questions about why we castrate our cattle? Check out this blogpost on Agriculture Proud.

Step 8. Once everyone has done their job, the calves are free to go. They return to the group of calves and ropers continue to find ones that have yet to be branded.

That's branding south-western Saskatchewan style. I love brandings like this because they truly maintain the western lifestyle and traditions of animal husbandry and cowboying. I hope you learned something about branding, and if you're familiar with branding I hope you learned something about our "cowboy" way! Watch the blog next week for a post on my family's branding, set for next Monday.

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