Branding day: The hardest minute of a cow's life

Alex Portal
Black Hills Pioneer

SPEARFISH — The cattle industry has played as major a role in the history of the Black Hills as the Gold Rush of 1876, and it continues to shape the region’s history to this day.

Aaron Thompson is one Black Hills rancher keeping that history alive by managing the same land his family has worked since 1888.

Branding can be the hardest minute of a cow’s life. However, for Thompson, that time for his calves is necessary to keep the herd happy, healthy, and accounted for.

“It’s the same as when your (child) starts kindergarten. They go in and they get a whole series of vaccinations for a myriad of diseases,” Thompson explained. “That’s not to say (branding) doesn’t hurt and that (it) doesn’t cause stress, but you go to pretty great lengths to … minimize it as much as possible.”

Thompson said the notion of the rough and tumble cowboy wrestling calves to the ground and branding them with red-hot pokers, straight from the flame is a somewhat antiquated picture of how modern ranches handle their livestock.

“Y’know, these guys had been raised by pioneers, and that cowboy mentality; it took a few generations to kind of moderate out and (for) some of those obvious things to be acknowledged, like the importance of humane handling and all that,” he said. “I don’t know anybody on the planet, who ranches for a living, that wants to do that to their livestock. If there was any other way that we could get away with not branding and not castrating, we would be doing it.”

Some ranching operations do still rope and drag their calves for branding, but Thompson employs the more passive assembly-line type of procedure, which sends the calves through a chute, and being secured onto a calf table while they’re worked on. Thompson said there has been a debate throughout the industry about which procedure causes the least amount of stress to the animal.

“There’s always been a great debate amongst ranchers in the industry; which is better,” he said. “So (researchers are) measuring stress in the animal’s blood stream. No significant difference one way or the other.”

Stress can be measured by studying the cortisol level in the blood stream. Thompson said high cortisol levels in cattle could have a detrimental effect on the quality of the meat.

“It always negatively affects meat quality,” he said. “The product suffers, if that animal suffers in any way.”

Additional to meat quality, Thompson said the animal’s ability to grow and produce is effected by stress.

“Any time you apply stress to an animal, you’re losing performance, so you’re losing pounds. Pounds is what I sell, pounds is what I pay bills with; it’s what I’m sending (my son) to college with, so any time we’re losing pounds or causing stress that’s bad. So we have a financial incentive to not cause any more stress than absolutely necessary.”

The necessity of branding day for Thompson’s calves proves itself in many ways; the most obvious being identification.

“You have to have some fool-proof way to identify ownership of livestock, and a hot iron brand is the only way out there that you can do that,” he said.

Thompson said other identification methods have been explored, such as tracer chips and other implanted means, but none have proved as effective.

“The second one of those gets into the food chain; somebody bites into a hamburger and has a little piece of glass crunch or a resister, or who knows what else falls out, then everybody’s screaming about food safety. So you can’t put it under the skin,” he said. “The whole point of it is to have a clear visual marker, identifying that as yours. So you want a brand that, after it’s healed, leaves a very clear image on the skin.”

A ranch’s particular brand is like a fingerprint. It can be used as registration for an animal, proof of right of sale, and is required for regulating some movement.

“We’re applying a brand that has a great deal of oversight associated with it,” Thompson said.

“Going back and forth across state lines requires, typically, and brand inspection. Anytime there’s a transfer of ownership there has to be a brand inspection.”

During the Belle Fourche Livestock Market, Thompson said state brand inspectors can check approximately 10,000 head of cattle a day.

“Every cow gets inspected. Every animal has been visually I.D.ed, and they say, ‘yep, that’s the brand that’s supposed to be there,’” he said. “So it’s a huge job; it’s a hard job.”

Brands can carry a very personal and intimate meaning to a ranch. Some are passed down through the generations and tell a story, which ensures a strong connection with the past to the future. Others are just there to set one animal apart from another.

“There’s no great story behind (our brand), it’s just what we’ve always had,” Thompson said. “It’s two-four, I guess it could be 24, but we’ve always just pronounced it numerically, two-four. I don’t know why, it does not matter one whiff in this world but that’s what you do.”

Along with the two-four brand, Thompson clips the left ear of his cattle as an added measure of identification for when they’re being moved.

“It’s hard to read a brand clearly every time,” he said. “All the neighbors around here; we’ve all had a calf of somebody else’s that went through the sale ring or something. That happens, and they catch it, usually.”

While branding is a requirement for cattle ranchers on this side of the state, Thompson said that east of the Missouri River, is a much different story.

“You don’t have to have a brand on a cow to sell it, you don’t have to have a cow inspected to sell it,” he said. “I could load up the neighbor’s cows here, drive across the Missouri River and sell them and nobody would question me at all.”

Thompson said branding regulations in South Dakota have been a hot button issue for a very long time.

“We could do an article on the brand deal, because it’s wildly contentious,” he said. “The further east you go, the less reason there might be for it. It’s not ranch country out there … its smaller country, they’re not comingling herds as much to where you can get away with (not branding).”

Just as important as branding, Thompson uses the calf’s time on the table to perform some necessary medical procedures as well.

“Those calves were being vaccinated against 14 different cooties,” Thompson said. “There was $2,500 worth of drugs that went into those calves that day… So you want those things to work.”

Thompson, again, stressed the importance of a gentle hand to keep the animals calm when it comes to inoculations.

“It helps make the drugs work, it helps provide a better product for the consumer, it helps keep me and the guys that come out and help safe, and it keeps the animal as safe as you can,” he said. “Animal health is way better than it used to be. Our anti-parasitics are much, much better; we have way better antibiotics and drugs to treat illnesses with.”

As if being branded, having their ears clipped and getting four rounds of inoculations wasn’t enough, Thompson also castrates the bull calves of the herd, which he says helps control the population, and circles back to the ever important question of meat quality.

“You don’t want animals breeding just hither and dither,” he said.

“You don’t want a bunch of testosterone jacking through their system, kind of tainting the meat … they perform better and gain better if they’re castrated.”

Thompson explained that castration is just another necessity for raising a healthy, well-managed herd, but it does present another layer of complication to the overall proceedings of branding day.

“It’s not a clinical process, (it’s) and assembly line job,” he said.

Thompson explained that with most surgical procedures, doctors make small incisions to help control blood loss in the sterile setting of a medical facility, where infections can also be mitigated. On a ranch, however, there are very few sterile settings, which means infections are all but a forgone conclusion. So Thompson said ranchers have developed a method of performing castration that opens a larger wound, which allows the body to fight off an infection, but prevents the animal from bleeding out.

“If it’s a small enough hole that it clots shut and that infection doesn’t have anywhere to go, it will metastasize in there and you will have to get the calf back in a couple days and lance that infection and treat them with antibiotics and all that,” Thompson said.

So, when castrating, the person wielding the knife moves the blade in more of a shaving motion, which leaves enough flesh around the cut to allow the blood vessels to clot, without completely closing the wound.

When all is said and done, the calves emerge from their ordeal a little worse for wear, but overall undeterred. Thompson said they youngsters are understandably sore for the next few days, and he’ll go out at least twice a day for a week or so just to check on their healing progress.

“The second they come off the table they go back in and get back with their mom,” Thompson said. “There’s no alternative to it. I wish there was. I don’t like the stress that you have to put on an animal there … that’s not something we take lightly. If you’re going really good, you’re doing about a calf a minute.”

By and large, Thompson said his cattle live a pretty passive life; which benefits not only the animals themselves, but Thompson as well.

“We’re always trying to handle cattle in a way that benefits their sanity, cause that helps my sanity,” he said. “If I feed them a bale of hay that isn’t just quite as good as the last one I fed them, oh I hear about it. I really do.”

Thompson said he’s become very adept at interpreting the ways in which cows communicate with ranchers, who know how to listen.

“You’d be astonished how good a guy gets at being able to read the body language and the behavior and the vocalizations, and all the things that goes into speaking cow,” he said.

Thompson said a quiet cow is a happy cow.

“If you feed them a good (bale); silence. You can look back and they’re all eating and their tails are swishing. That’s what you’re going for.”

Thompson could not overstate the importance of keeping one’s cattle happy and healthy as they live out there lives and inevitably repay that debt by providing good, healthy food, which in turn, keeps consumers happy.

“What I’ve observed is, a cow is an incredibly content and stoic animal; it never ceases to amaze me,” he said. “(Branding is) hard on them, you can’t deny that. But another way to look at this is … that’s a life that is happy, and content, and even joyous at moments that wouldn’t exist if we weren’t doing these things to them, raising them for a purpose, and then eating them.”

Branding can be an uncomfortable aspect of ranching for some, but it is an essential part of the industry. And with a concerted effort by ranchers and cattlemen to open their barn doors more to the public and allow folks to meet their livestock, it’s important for consumers to gain a better perspective of their place in the food chain.

“There’s definitely a segment of the consumer that wants that relationship with that chain that their food is coming off of,” Thompson said. “I think there’s opportunity there for us; I think we’ve got a great story.”