Small puffs of smoke rise from three different corral stations into the clear blue sky. The sounds of cows mooing for their babies, and the cries of cowboys moving calves, carries on the spring breeze. In the corner of the pen a small, makeshift stove hosts rolling, hot flames which heat long iron rods bearing brands into glowing red shapes.
Spring is cattle branding season in the Gunnison Valley.
Livestock branding is as old as the pyramids in Egypt. Yet, the tradition is best attributed to the American West. In the Gunnison Valley, the practice has carried through generations of ranchers — and is still the preferred method of tracking cattle even with advances in technology.
Yet, branding goes far beyond the utilitarian purpose of declaring ownership on cattle and a requirement of state law. It’s steeped in family heritage and a ritual of neighbor helping neighbor — even today.
The practice of branding
Colorado is a branding state — meaning state law requires livestock owners to brand as a way of identification. Livestock cannot be transported more than 75 miles without a brand inspection.
The state Brand Inspection Division employs 58 inspectors located throughout the state with 10 supervisors. The $4.5 million annual budget is funded through fees paid by livestock owners.
In 2015 and 2016, brand inspectors examined more than 3.7 million head of livestock.
Despite new technology which allows owners to track animals through GPS ear tags, ownership of the animal is defined by a permanent brand.
“Even a tattoo on an ear or lip can sometimes not be permanent,” said Gunnison County Extension Agent Eric McPhail.
McPhail noted that branding is a communal event, with friends and neighbors participating in the work. The privilege of placing the brand on the animal is reserved for the ranch owner, but others assist with roping calves, vaccinations and other duties.
The practice is still a surefire method of ensuring cattle don’t accidentally change hands.
“We have cattle up on public lands from different herds,” explained McPhail. “That’s really where so much of it came to be. All of a sudden you have four ranchers with cattle up on public lands and when they bring the cattle back down, they want to know whose animals are whose.”
Tradition remains today
From a young age, Ohio Creek Valley rancher Wendy Redden Collins remembers branding day as a celebration of spring.
“When I was a kid we used a branding table,” said Collins of laying calves on their sides. “In the last six or seven years we have roped and dragged them in the old-school style. It takes a lot of people to do that but we have a lot of friends and neighbors … a lot of help so we’ve just done it that way.”
Collins said the practice is no harder on the calves than any other method. Her ranch insists on certain safety rules, such as roping and dragging calves by both hind legs — not just one. She refuted claims that branding is painful to the calves. She compared it to burning a finger on a stove.
“It’s carrying on that old tradition as well,” said Collins. “Not many people rope and drag around here anymore so it’s kind of fun for everybody to get to experience that.”
Not only does a permanent brand make separating cattle into herds easier, it prevents rustlers.
“When the market gets up there and people are trying to get money, things happen,” Collins said.
Common to branding is the camaraderie among participants working side by side, and the party which take place afterward.
“We’ve met a lot of great people because friends of friends come,” Collins said. “It’s a big day and we cook a meal that we can watch while we’re branding. It’s time for neighbors to get together.”
Likewise, she said her grown children travel to other brandings to assist neighboring ranchers. They too are treated to food and libations after the work is done.
“That’s the thank you that everyone gets for coming to help,” Collins said.