Branding Day Protocol

If you’ve ever been to a western South Dakota branding that served Rocky Mountain oysters cooked on a branding stove, you may not think such an event requires etiquette but there are certain expectations that go with branding.

According to an undocumented branding policy, if you want to help gather cattle, don’t be late. Special circumstances can’t be helped but lack of planning ahead isn’t one of them.  A rancher goes by his time on his branding day not someone else’s.

A branding is not the place to ride a green broke horse or ride a mount that’s never been around cattle before. Riders should bring a horse that knows cows. The horses don’t necessarily have to know the cows personally or know mutual acquaintances but they do need to have management skills in working with cows. A horse that blows up, riles other horses, or is difficult to handle can stir up an otherwise smooth cow-gathering operation.

If a dog owner doesn’t want man’s best friend to become man’s only friend, bringing a yapping dog or one that chases livestock isn’t recommended. A spooked horse can cause a wreck and stirred up cows are hard to handle if riled.

Unless you’ve specifically been asked to, standing in the way of approaching cattle is a death wish. Nothing irritates a rancher more on his branding day than having a herd of cattle heading nicely for the corrals, suddenly scatter because someone’s standing in the way. By the time you’ve been clipped by a rancher’s verbal fire power for all to hear, you’ll wish you could be stoned to death instead.

If you see a better way to handle cattle, or do a branding chore, by all means do not tell the rancher. Regardless of how senseless or unorganized a rancher’s system looks, these are men who have always gathered, sorted and branded a specific way for reasons they probably don’t even understand, but don’t like people telling them how to run their ranch or branding.

Cattle ranchers typically handpick neighbors they trust to do the important branding jobs and are usually the same people every year. No matter how appealing a job like cutting calf nuts looks, never assume a job unless you’re asked to do it. Running a branding iron takes skill and is generally assigned to elder ranchers. Unless they’re senile. Old timers know which brand to use, which side and where on the animal to brand, how to place it correctly for identification, and how to avoid smearing or branding too deeply.

Careless or novice vaccine gun operators can waste expensive vaccine if they don’t know what they’re doing. Most ranchers try to get by as cheaply as possible by buying just enough vaccine for the number of calves they’re vaccinating and relying on experienced vaccine gun users to administer it.

Traditionally, a big meal is provided after branding as a token of thanks to those who helped out. If you didn’t help out in the branding corral, you’re still invited to stay for dinner; just don’t be the first in line.

Above all else, the most important thing you should remember to do at a branding no matter where you go is to ALWAYS compliment the cook.

column published April 25-May 1, 2010

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