Ever wondered where your food comes from? Well, before they get turned into prime rib and burgers, cows have to be raised and handled by real men and women — cowboys. Yes, they really do still exist and this is what they do.
Branding isn't just a necessary task, it's a social event. Friends, family and neighbors are invited over to help. So, there's a real chance you'll be invited to join in the fun one day. This guide should help give you an idea of what to expect.
Step One: Don't be a pussy. You're not going to get any sympathy if you complain about, well, pretty much anything at one of these events. And, the things you might find yourself complaining about might include getting cow shit in your mouth, getting burned by a hot iron, kicked by a 200lbs calf, throwing up due to the overpowering stench of burning hair and cow flesh or the site of a calf losing its manhood to a dull Buck knife. And, don't be surprised if there are small children and beautiful women there who are much tougher than you are. Don't complain about that either, but do expect to get made fun of for it.
Step Two: Learn the vocabulary.
Cattle: Pretty much anything with beef.
Calf: Young, unweaned cattle of either sex.
Cow: Adult female that has had a calf.
Heifer: A young cow that has not yet birthed a calf.
Steer: A castrated male.
Bull: An intact male.
Step Three: Round up the cattle. They're rounded up using horses and corralled into pens. The calves are then sorted from the cows perhaps using an electric prod or maybe just with sticks and some hooping and hollering.
Step Four: Flank the calves. After the calves are sorted into pens and the irons are hot, teams of two cowboys (possibly including you!) will grab a calf — one guy grabs the neck and the other a rear leg or tail. If you're good, the calf is quickly dropped to the ground with the deftness of an MMA fighter taking down a drunken NASCAR fan. It's tough, and will leave even the most hardcore crossfitter's biceps, lats and forearms sore for days.
Step Five: Brand 'em. Once down and pinned, each calf receives a brand with an iron that's been heated to around 700 degrees Fahrenheit. They also get antibiotic and de-worming shots too. Male calves are also castrated — guess what's for lunch?!
I won't try and make this seem like it's not bad; it's really bad. One of the more experience cowboys, probably the rancher himself, will be doing this job. The scrotum is either split in half with a vertical cut or the bottom is simply cut off. To free both hands to get a good grip on the testicles, the bloody knife is then clinched in your teeth. Then, you just pull them on out, slice the vas deferens and toss them to the guy (or, in this case, 9-year old boy) responsible for collecting them.
Finally, horns are removed to make the calves easier to handle as adults. This is done by slipping a hollow round chisel called a "horn spoon" around the nub of the horn, pushing it down and pulling the horn off with a quick pry.
Why castrate? The males are castrated to increase the fat marbling of the beef. Thus, most quality beef cuts come from steers. An additional benefit of removing the testicles is, of course, to calm them down and prevent any bullish behavior.
Why brand? Cattle branding is performed in the late spring months after the calving. Branding allows ranchers to keep track of their cattle on the open range and where there is more than one rancher pasturing their cattle on the same plot of land. While there are other methods, such as tagging, branding reduces the cattle rustling thanks to the indelible mark it leaves. Branding is also firmly ingrained into the culture of the American West, it's a time of community and celebration. Most branding events are attended by neighboring ranchers and their families or other family members. It also gives the rancher an opportunity to assess the health and size of his herd. Not to mention the great opportunity to drink light beer and talk a ton of trash.
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