Sunday, April 19, 2009

Cattle Branding for Dummies by a Dummy

Before I begin this article, two quick editor's notes about my Jail Blazers article. I shouldn't have insinuated that Dale Davis was a stoner, because he was never proven as such, and I should have included Isaiah "JR" Rider as the original Jailblazer. Although Rider was gone while most of this was going on, his criminal history and poor attitude kicked off the discontent of Blazer fans in Portland.

Anyway.... off to cooler topics.

I work indoors. I don't have to sweat or get sunburned or smell like manure to earn my dollar. Some folks do. Some folks get up at 5am to drive somewhere just to work in the hot sun with a bunch of animals all day so that they can both earn a buck and provide Americans with the opportunity to purchase meat and dairy.

I took part in my first cattle branding a couple days ago, and it sure was an experience. As my friend Nate has told me, sometimes these brandings turn into real hootenannies complete with kegs, and strippers. I have yet to verify any of these stripper-infused branding events, but I would definitely like to be present at such a gathering.

Nate's herd of cattle consisted of around 150 heifers (females) that were all less than a year old. He leased a nice piece of acreage in Rio Vista, CA for them to graze, and they'd been running free for awhile.

Our first task was to rustle them up. So Nate hopped on his horse and I hopped on a quad (ATV). We tried to force them through one fence opening, but they refused to wade through six inches of standing water. So we funneled them through another opening until we had them all penned up in the corral.

Cows are almost like schools of fish. They change direction all together and prefer to have strength in numbers. If they had any brains, they'd scatter everywhere and try to run us over. More on that later.

It was my job to subdivide the cattle into different "sub-corrals". I'd push 25 or 30 of them from the main corral into a smaller one. Then from there, I'd herd anywhere from 8 to 15 of them into another pen. The gate was on a hinge that allowed me to expand or contract the size of the corral to my liking. The only problem was that if the cattle aren't given enough room, they'll all end up turned the wrong direction and won't move on into the chute. That's the most difficult part.

To get the cattle from the 3rd sub-corral into the single file chute, you have to first get them to turn around. Loud noises and banging on the gates work, but then your job is only half done. From there, either a hotshot to the rump (cattle prod) or a cattle paddle held used properly gets them going into the chute. After about 50-75 cattle, I finally figured out how to use the paddle. One can direct cattle with it by holding it alongside of their eyes. They try to avoid it and generally run straight. If they are turned in the right direction, a simple shock with the hotshot will get them headed into the chute.

Meanwhile, the other cowpokes will be operating the "squishing apparatus" as I coined it. Unfortunately our promised help bailed on us, so my buddy had to catch, brand, inject, and tag each cow by himself. That's usually the job of 2 or 3 guys.

Basically, when the next cow gets hotshotted down the chute, one guy will close an opening around the head, then pull another lever to hold the cow's body tightly in place. Then a third lever is pulled to keep the next cow from interfering. Of course, each assembly line is different and I'm told that some are automated and use hydraulics. Sounds nice.

Once the cow is caught, the branding takes place. Every rancher has their own brand, whose location on the cow and design must be registered. Nowadays open flames are not used. In our case, we ran a generator that powered a branding iron that is basically a stove element. Nate's was a 1500W beast that reached upwards of 600 degrees. Just picture turning your electric stove on high. A new technique called freeze branding is in use by "hippie" ranchers, but it isn't as effective and isn't legally recognized in many states.

The brand must be done cleanly, or someone could steal your cattle. This mark is indelibly left on the cow for its lifetime, so it must be done right. The iron burns off substantial amounts of cow hair before it hits the skin, so a pretty serious cloud of smoke occurs.

It is... pungent to say the least. It also stings the eyes. You better hope you have a breeze going on, or you are in for a long day.

Once the brand looks like brown saddle leather, it's on to the inoculations.

Each injection is meant to promote the cow's health and resistance to diseases and infections that they may encounter. At $3-5 a head, these shots get pricey. Next up is eartagging.

Each cow is given an ear tag-- I've learned that the best are Allflex ear tags which can be customized with the ranch's name on it. Blank tags run about $1.10 and customized ones run about $1.25. Again, cattle ranching is a numbers game. To make money, you need to have a lot of them. Then again, if you're running inoculations at $4.00 a head and using custom Allflex tags at $1.25 apiece, you're looking at $525.00 per each hundred head of cattle. That of course doesn't include what you paid for them in the beginning, what it costs to lease feed lots like the one we were at in Rio Vista, or anything else. You need to spend a lot to make anything in this industry.

Anyway, once the cow is branded, inoculated, and tagged, they're free to roam again, until their maker comes calling and they get turned into hamburger meat or a delicious ribeye steak.

A few more points/misconceptions to discuss:

1) Branding is cruel

Sorry, it's really not. These beasts have extremely thick skin and a hot iron to their hip for 10 seconds is really no different than the elective tattooing that us humans subject ourselves to. The eartagging is no different than getting our ears pierced. As for cattle prods, yeah, it may not be nice, but come on. These are generally 8,000 volt shocks. Tasers that people use to bring down humans? A minimum of 25,000 volts. Cattle are stubborn, stupid creatures, and they don't reason well. No hotshotting? No progress. Argument dismissed.

2) You are barbaric moron cowboys! You make me sick! How can you treat an animal that way? How would you like it if someone did that to you?

A few things. I just debunked your theory of how this stuff hurts cattle. Secondly, this is part of the process. Each cow costs anywhere from $.70 - $1.10 per pound at the saleyard. They're sold at a little bit less per pound once they grow up. Let's say that you bought a 500 lb. cow. You paid $400 for it. When it comes time to sell it off, that cow weighs between 800 and 900 lbs. (we'll say 850 for this argument) and is worth about .70/lb. at that point. It's now worth $595. That's a profit of $195 per cow, for a perfect world scenario of $19,500 in gross sales, $14,500 in gross profit, and even less that goes into the bank after feed expenses, land leases, fuel, etc.

So basically, the crazy PETA people and wacko vegetarians believe that individual $10 dollar collars with nametags should be made up for every cow on the lot. Forget that a raising a small herd of 100 costs an incredible amount to feed and maintain. It is simply ridiculous for these animal-rights loons to condemn a practice that is in fact the ONLY legal recourse that ranchers have when ownership issues arise. There is simply no way around it. It is a fact of life, and it is a legally binding mark. People's livelihoods are at stake, and one must protect his investment.

In addition, if you have ever enjoyed a hamburger, steak, chicken, or any other meat, then you have no right to complain. It's the real world, and this is how it's done. It's not for the faint of heart.

3) All beings are sacred, and deserve respect:

Excuse me while I vomit in my mouth. And no offense to Indians and Hinduism, but you definitely coulda picked a better animal to be sacred. Seriously. How about a smart monkey or a Yellow Lab?

After working closely with cattle for 8 hours, I can now tell you that they are without a doubt, the stupidest, most disgusting creatures I've ever dealt with. I'm told that only pigs are more disgusting.

Cattle crap all over themselves and each other constantly. Once in the chute while closely packed together, one cow crapped directly onto the head of the cow immediately behind it. It was not a pretty picture. In fact, if cattle had any brains at all, they wouldn't listen to you at all, they'd stay put or charge you. They're the ones that weigh 500-900 pounds. Trust me, after screaming at them all day and stepping in their feces every step, you learn to look at them as the pieces of meat and dollar signs that they are.

4) Koehn Cattle Paddles suck

These industry standard paddles last less than any product should. They are good finesse instruments for sorting cattle, and they have the right idea. However, the plastic breaks too easily, and the lack of telescoping shafts really hamper you. If I couldn't reach the cattle on one side of the fence, I'd have to climb over one and climb halfway up another in order to move the cows. All I really needed was another foot or so. Is that so much to ask? Get your act together Koehn. There's no reason that a tree trimmer or pool net can extend itself and that your paddles can't.

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