MERINO — Ropers on horseback pull calves from the herd one by one, dragging them by their hind legs across the dirt and into a grass-covered corral as they bellow.
This is where the teams of relatives, friends, neighbors and little kids surround each calf and make quick work of the day’s task.
One person pins a calf’s hind end to the ground while another keeps a knee on its neck so it can’t squirm away. Three people quickly shoot immunizations into the calf’s neck and a pain reliever into its shoulder. The vaccinators are trailed by kids who streak the calf’s side with chalk — green, yellow and red — to mark which ones have been immunized. An uncle presses a red-hot branding iron on the calf’s left hip, sizzling away the hair and tanning the hide in the shape of a broken arrow. And, for the male calves, a cousin steps forward with a sharp blade, removing the calf’s testicles with a clean swipe.
It’s a whirlwind of mooing, puffs of smoke, the stench of scorched hair and flesh, and testicles flying across the pasture.
For each calf, the action lasts about three minutes until they’re let up and get to trot back to their moms. And in under two hours, the multiple generations of ranchers who’ve gathered under a wide blue sky for another spring branding day have finished all 156 calves.
At McEndaffer Ranch, where this spring the rolling pastures are lush and Pawnee Creek is swelling, branding day is the traditional kind. Riders on horseback drive the cows and calves in from the field, pushing them into the metal corrals and separating the moms from the babies. It’s a rope-and-drag operation, with cowboys volunteering — and showing off — their skills as they twirl ropes above their heads and, with precision, loop them around one or two of the calves’ hind legs. They rarely miss.
The calves, ranging in age from two days to three months, are handled by people, not equipment, and for as short a time as possible.
The method is less stressful on the calves compared with the more modern branding operations that require fewer hands — rounding up cows by four-wheeler and pushing them into a steel chute or a calf table that tips sideways for branding.
Plus, branding day is pretty much a party.
Krislynn Bass, age 10 and 3/4, darted around with red chalk, marking calves that had gotten their shot of antipathogen vaccine — but not with a boring slash. She drew hearts on their sides. Krislynn has helped out at so many branding days that she’s forgotten how many.
A hot iron is branded onto a calf’s hip with the owner’s logo May 19 near Merino. Neighbors and friends get together each spring to brand calves, which helps ranch owners identify their cattle if they wander away. Branding is the only marking that lasts for an animal’s lifetime. (Photography by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Jax Grove, 12, who spent the day holding down calves’ necks, drew laughs and cheers when he tore across the corral and tackled a large calf that was about to scramble away from its handlers halfway through its vaccinations.
Jim Walker and Dan Bornhoft had the right idea, watching the action from the other side of the fence on the seat of a green four-wheeler while they drank beer.
“It’s a spring celebration that calving is over and everybody’s ready to go to summer pasture,” said Walker, 73, who attends several branding days each spring, including the one at his ranch when everyone else comes to help him.
Ranchers use the rope- and drag-method to brand calves.
“I’m just here to drink beer and eat,” said Bornhoft, chuckling as he took a sip of Busch Light.
All the work was done by early evening, and the corral gates were opened so the cows and calves could return to the wide open space of the ranch. “They get all mothered up, get bedded down and they’ll rest and they’ll be fine,” said Morgan Pratt, who along with his wife, Britt, and her parents, bought the ranch about two years ago. “They will be pretty grouchy for a couple days.”
A half-dozen Yeti coolers on the back of a flat-bed pickup are already open as the cows trail off into the tall grasses, and the ropers and wrestlers and old-timers are cracking open Keystone beers, Busch Lights and seltzers. Soon, they will fire up the grill for hamburgers.
TOP: A calf is gently dragged to the next pen to be branded, vaccinated and castrated by the teams. LEFT: Bret McEndaffer, from left, Kenny Holzworth, Danny Bornhoft, and Colby Walker have few beers after branding the calves. RIGHT: Hudson Pratt, left, at age 4, drives away as Kwinton Bass , 9, chases with the testicles. (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
The youngest boys were assigned the job of collecting the testicles flung across the pasture. Later, they might get barbecued and become Rocky Mountain oysters, but first, the boys tossed them at each other as they ran through the fields in their little cowboy boots.
Branding days are a spring pastime in Logan County and the rest of the plains surrounding Sterling and Fort Morgan. It’s work, of course, but way more fun than a typical day of ranch chores — rescuing calves, hauling water and fixing fences.
People show up to help each other because that’s what neighbors do, and by neighbors, they mean miles of fields and sometimes towns apart. “It’s like a community event,” said Niki Wernsman, who has a ranch near Sterling and climbed into the fence at her friend’s ranch to vaccinate the calves. “It’s friends and family and an excuse to get together. There’s always a barbecue afterwards.”
At the Pratts’ ranch on a recent Friday night, cars and pickups and a few horse trailers crossed the cattle guard and lined the dirt road leading up to the corral in the middle of a field, no house in sight.
“Sometimes you’ll have 25 and sometimes you’ll have 50,” Morgan Pratt said. “It doesn’t matter how many neighbors show up, you’ll get it done.
“There’s a lot of family that we don’t get to see but two or three times a year and it’s at a branding. We help them. They help us. And for our workers, every day, all day is work. We don’t get this environment at work. They come help out, have a couple of beers. It’s a huge community thing.”
Buying the ranch along Pawnee Creek in December 2021 was a lifelong dream for Britt and her parents, who had a ranch farther north along the same creek when Britt was a child. They sold it in the early 1990s.
“We went broke essentially,” she said, getting choked up as the cows mooed and more and more family and friends rolled up. “Mom left that ranch kicking and screaming. She said, ‘If we ever have enough money where we can make it work, I want another ranch.’
“Ranching is hard and a lot of people don’t make it. We weren’t to that point but we didn’t want to be to that point so we moved and sold the ranch.”
In 1995, her parents purchased an irrigated farm that they’ve turned into a feed yard with the capacity for 40,000 head of cattle needing fattening up for slaughter. Britt’s dad, Bret McEndaffer, runs the feed yard, while Britt and Morgan run the ranch. On branding day, Britt’s mom, Tina McEndaffer, was in charge of the barbecue, and Britt’s 4-year-old and 8-year-old sons Hudson and Walker practiced roping and cruised through the pasture on four-wheelers.
The calves branded this spring will stay with their moms until October, then spend the winter eating corn stalks. In March, they’ll return to grass pastures until sometime the following fall, depending on how much rain Colorado gets next year and how high the grass grows. “If we don’t get any rain, we’ll take them off sooner,” Britt said. “You don’t want to overgraze your land. We take care of the land because it takes care of us.”
LEFT: Wyatt Walker, from left, Bret McEndaffer, and Harper Johnson, brand a calf with a hot iron on the McEndaffer Ranch. RIGHT: Kooper Bass, 4, practices his roping skills on the calves. (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
For the last few weeks of their lives, the calves will go to the family’s feed yard, where they will munch on flaked corn before heading to slaughter. The Pratts sell them to Cargill, which has a processing plant a half-hour away in Fort Morgan.
The calves, a colorful Angus Charolais Hereford cross, spend 90% of their lives in a pasture. It’s why branding is so important.
The land where the cattle graze touches land belonging to other ranchers, which makes it likely that cows will occasionally get mixed up. The McEndaffer cows are marked with a distinct broken arrow, a single-character brand (meaning it only needs one iron) that Britt’s father purchased for $1,000 in 1985. Today, he estimates it would sell for $50,000.
Branding also matters at the sale barn, should cattle rustlers attempt to sell stolen property. Britt’s cattle roam far out of her sight, making it possible for thieves to try to steal them by enticing them with treats, or “cake,” off the back of a truck.
“My calves are pretty tame. It would be really easy for someone with a cake truck to come in here, cake the cows in this corral right here and load up 50 babies,” Britt said, referring to supplemental food pellets. “But when they take them to the sale barn someone might recognize your brand and say, ‘That is not your brand. Those are not your cattle.’”
Just as important, though, are the vaccines. The calves get a dose of seven-way vaccine, which protects against a variety of infectious diseases, as well as a herd-specific vaccine that was custom-made by a local veterinarian to protect against pathogens. Plus, they get a shot of the “feel-good” drug Banamine, basically like a Tylenol to soothe sore muscles after the stress of the day.
“Everything we do is to try to give them the best treatment possible,” Britt said. “We’re teaching the next generation the traditional way of ranching.”
As the cows and calves stream out of the branding corral and spread out across the pasture, Britt feels lighter. The moment marks the end of a stressful calving season, when she worried for weeks about the babies being born in her 700-acre pasture. It was an unusually snowy and cold season. “It was one heck of a spring. A lot can happen,” she said. “Predators. Coyotes. Snake bites. When it’s over, it’s a relief.”
Branding day is a “rite of passage,” Britt said. “It’s time to take them out to summer pasture and green grass and let the cows be cows.”