Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Smooth Operators

          Branding this year was another smooth operation.  A major contributor to this event was my old Wilsall Ranch Rodeo partner Darin Veltkamp – and his older three progeny.
          I bonded with the Veltkamp boys nearly 25 years ago when I had reason to sort some cattle with Darin’s twin brother Phil.  We share the same style of cattle-handling – which is what led to our teamwork in the Ranch Rodeo competition among 40 of the top cowboys in Park and Meagher counties.  Darin and his kids have been working cows with me for 20 years, and the four of them are now a major component of the branding roster.
          Gathering the cattle for the branding is usually a non-event, as the cattle are still near the corrals.  The next step is far more important – that of sorting the cows away from the calves.
          Darin heads up the contingent sorting cows out of the “bridge trap”.  They throw open the gate into the bull pen and cut back the calves - allowing only the cows to leave the trap – ending up with a big bunch of mostly calves.  I generally take half of the cows into the corrals to sort up the alley.  I have the option of letting a group of cows out through another gate into the bull pen, or turning a sort of calves into the branding corral. 
It’s a competition to see who can sort their bunch faster.  The slower group is subject to the hoots, hollers, and helpful advice of all the members of the group that finishes first.
All of this, of course, is done ahorseback.
With the calves corralled, the next operation is to run the cows through the chute for their annual vaccinations.  Darin usually heads up the operations at the chute, while I work the back end, keeping his chute full of cows.
Then the branding.
We believe that the fastest, easiest, and least stressful on both man and beast is to heel the calves out to the fire.  Three or four ropers ride into a pen of some 50 feet square, flick a loop around the hind legs of a calf, and drag them to the waiting crews of wrestlers.
As the title of this essay implies, this operation went smoothly.  We branded and vaccinated some 150 calves in about an hour and 50 minutes.  Then we went to the house for lunch.
We’d already branded Darin’s bunch, and then Craig’s bunch, a few weeks past.  We had much the same crew – and much the same fun.  This was in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, when much of the world was on lockdown.  Yet we all worked together, ate together, drank together, and told stories together - without the benefit of facemasks or hand sanitizer.

The operation a few weeks later was not so smooth.  There were about ten calves that were born too late for the main branding.  We called a neighbor, and set up again to get this last little bunch.  I was the designated roper for this event.
The last ten head at any branding are caught at a much slower rate than the bulk of the calves.  The assumption has always been that it is because these are all the ones who have jumped and kicked and evaded all of the previous loops thrown at them.  But this little exercise proved to me that it is simply harder to get an effective shot at some heels when 1) there are fewer heels from which to choose, and 2) the remaining calves have far more latitude to jump and run. 
One always prefers to catch a calf by “two hocks” – both hind feet.  It’s easier on the calf, the horse, and the wrestlers.  In fact in some neighborhoods now, a roper is expected to drop his loop if he picks up only one hock.  Of these ten calves I caught four by the traditional two-hock method.
I caught two more by throwing a head-loop, then waiting until the loop fell back onto the hind legs before I dallied. 
On three calves I jerked my slack on just one hind leg, and let my wrestlers deal with it.
Rather than chase the last calf round and round until he presented his hind legs, I simply dropped on a head-loop.  He sprang away too quickly to finesse the loop down to his ankles, so I pulled my slack and went to the fire.
He jumped and ran and circled my horse until I had to tie off to my horn and go down the rope to help the wrestlers throw him.  It took as long to brand these ten as it had taken to brand 100 a few weeks before.
It didn’t go any better after this mini-branding when we went out to catch a neighbor’s bull.
We don’t turn in our bulls until mid-June, so that we begin calving in mid-March.  This bull would be throwing calves in February – and he wasn’t the sort of bull with the genetics we desire.
But when we went after him, he threw up his head, pushed past the horses, and ran the other way.  We tried to hold him together with a few cows, but failed at that also.  Had I some backup, I’d have roped him and taught him some respect!!
I called my sons – who are both proficient with bull-whips.  They couldn’t make it up to the ranch.
I called my neighbor Lonn, who is a proficient roper.  He wasn’t home.
I called my granddaughter. She had more pressing projects.

Eric and I went out a few days later.  Our first mission was to move the yearlings to fresh grass.  That didn’t take much longer to accomplish than it takes to tell about it.  Then we went hunting for the bull.
That field is only some 300 acres, but it’s rough, rocky, and steep.  We had, however, picked our two best horses for open country cow-work.
We found the bull in the far southeast corner.  We were able to throw a dozen cow/calf pairs together with him, and took the works right down the east fence.
We’d left the gates open, and the group traveled nicely the whole mile or so back to the river, with the bull in the middle of the pack.  They all crossed the bridge; the bull went into the corral with one pair; the pair cut back nicely; and he was caught!
There were two escaped yearlings in this little bunch of cows, and we headed them all back from whence we’d just come.  When we reached the gate where we left the yearlings an hour or so before, it was easy enough to cut the yearlings back and push them through the gate to join their peers.  We returned to the barn with smug smiles.
Saturday had gone anything but smoothly for us.  Yes, we’d gotten the job of branding the tail-enders done, but we weren’t proud of way we’d accomplished it. 
Today, however, we’d made one big efficient circle:  We’d picked up the yearlings and put them on fresh grass;  We’d continued the circle to ride through the cows and find the bull;  We’d come up the far side of the circle with the bull, and captured him in the corral;  We’d returned to the field with the cows we’d used to accompany the bull; We’d gathered some escaped yearlings and threw them back with their bunch. 
We’d accomplished a smooth operation – and we’d recovered our pride.