Today a comment popped into my email regarding the last blog I posted — almost a month ago. The commenter wanted to know: “Are you still blogging?”
Good question, and one I’ve been asking myself. Since my blog’s establishment in September of 2015, I’d posted blogs regularly, never letting more than a week pass without saying something on prairiemom.me. Then came June 2017, when I didn’t know if I had anything worthwhile left to say, when I found myself paralyzed by the realization that no matter how much I write, no matter how eloquently I write… it’ll never be enough to straighten out this ugly ol’ world of ours.
June found us smack in the middle of the PV branding season, the time of year the crew here systematically goes through the herd vaccinating and branding newborn calves. With my dad unable to ride for the first time in my life, my husband officially assumed the role of cowboss this year, doing his best to direct coworkers and dayworkers through 25 branding days in this extremely transitional period in our lives.
You know how the average mom-n-pop outfit with 350 calves to brand stresses over that much, right? Well, you can multiply it all by 10 and imagine the hard work we had to conquer in a month’s time. Yet hard work is something my family is well-accustomed to, and Beau has proven himself more than worthy of the task of being part of my family. Hard work is not what made the 2017 branding season hard for us. It was insubordinate employees, unfortunately, who made Beau’s everyday twice as difficult as it needed to be and who fanned Dad’s fears that he’s living in a world devoid of respect and, additionally, that the uprising of a new generation must necessarily mean the death of his.
Gotta be honest, things were pretty rough around here for a while, bad enough that at one point I only half-jokingly threatened Beau that I was just about ready to move to low-income housing in Miles City, go to work in a coffee shop, and put the kids in private school. The only good thing that came of all of it was an honest, no-holds-barred conversation between Beau and I and my folks, something we’ve agreed must become a bi-weekly event in order to keep this stinking ranch that none of us own, not to mention our families, afloat.
With Beau having to defend from stupid-aggressive employees his every single command as he tried to mesh PV tradition and test out a few of his own ideas… with Dad watching helplessly, unable to find the words quickly enough in any given situation and certainly unable to physically prove naysayers wrong… PV tradition was taken to court every single branding day this year. And finally, when we Blakes and Arviks had the chance to sit down and hash out everything that had been happening, Dad found the words to reiterate what Beau and I know well but which we can probably stand to hear again and again:
Why we do things the way we do here at the PV.
Because, as I’ll outline below, there is rhyme to why we handle cattle the way we do here. There are reasons why we brand the way we do here. Yes, it’s all a bunch of history and methodology, and yes, it was all written on my soul when I was very little. But I still believe in it whole-heartedly. Yet, in the whiling days of June, as we licked our wounds and checked our confidences following a near-fisticuffs in the branding pen and an ambulance visit to the ranch the same day, I wondered whether those dusty old rules I’ve lived my life by might even still apply to cowboying here in the iPhone Age. I mean, do modern-day Angus cows really need to be handled the old-fashioned way?
Or are we old-fashioned Arviks becoming obsolete?
I pondered it all quietly in my heart as June, and my 35th birthday, and the 11th annual ranch rodeo we’ve hosted passed us by. I kept telling myself that I was in a vow of silence and that, furthermore, nobody had noticed I wasn’t writing anyhow.
Then, today, in my email inbox, that question: “Are you still blogging?”
The comment appears to have been posted by a Jay Stovall. You know, Jay Stovall — well known Billings-area/Crow Reservation rancher, wearer of his own tough-ol’-cowboss brand. Our families never did travel in the same circles, though many a cowboy looped through both the PV and the Stovall place… and you know how cowboys take stories of where they’ve been with them wherever they go. I did meet Jay Stovall a time or two at Stockgrowers meetings during my time in the ag news business.
The funny thing is that Jay Stovall passed away in 2011 at age 71. I looked at his obituary in the online archives of the Billings Gazette this afternoon, just to be sure.
Now. I know there are probably lots of Jay Stovalls in the world. Yet I think I’ll choose to believe that it was Crow rancher Jay Stovall who somehow got a message to me today — from one cowboss to the keeper of another cowboss’s legacy (whether my dad likes that or not) — that it sure wouldn’t hurt to sit down and record why old cow outfits do the things they do. Because tradition is rooted in something, whether the iPhone Generation will admit it or not.
Jay, I don’t know if your outfit brands the way ours does, but I’ve got the feeling that two old cowbosses who’ve stood the test of time might have at least a couple notions in common. So here goes… a short list of what all the old cowbosses just knew.
1 The most obvious reason to hold up and work your herd before corralling to brand is to make sure you’re not about to brand a neighbor’s calf. Don’t consider yourself a stockman if you don’t.
Insubordinates were appalled this year, branding at the PV, because more often than not we hold the herd outside the branding pen after gathering — sometimes for an hour or more. The crew surrounds the herd horseback while the cowboss and the camp man responsible for these particular cattle rawhide through them, looking for strays and dries (cows without calves) and heavies (cows that haven’t calved yet) and tiny pairs too young to brand, as well as cripples, cancer eyes, and lump jaws. The odds ‘n’ ends are worked from the herd and trailed to a nearby holding pasture.
Why do we do it? Because often a bunch of cattle is gathered into the branding corral from a spring pasture and, after branding, turned directly out the back end of the corral into a summer pasture — usually a very large summer pasture. They won’t be seen again until fall. So too, working the herd on branding day saves the smaller, salaried crew (compared to the size of the typical branding crew, which would include a few extra dayworkers) from having to come back to handle these same cows again in a few days, short-handed, and it ensures that a dry cow will not be free-loading summer grass when she ought to be sold at the sale yard instead. It also ensures that a slick (unbranded) calf will not be roaming, susceptible to theft, in a summer pasture.
Branding here is a whole different animal compared to branding at mom-n-pop’s place. Our brandings are not weekend expositions wherein we invite everybody we can think of, hurry to finish branding, then lay around in the shade and drink beer all afternoon. My dad has always despised a big crew; he finds big crews to be more trouble than they’re worth. Anyhow, he was taught that it is the job of the salaried employees to take care of the cattle; we hire a few extras to help with the added workload at branding time, and our whole method is geared toward precisely that. Mom-n-pop outfits, I would imagine, spend the week before (or after) the branding doing other work: working the dries out, working the heavies out, gathering the cattle into a small pasture the day before the branding, etc. Everything, then, I would imagine, is ready to go when the weekenders show up on Saturday to brand. BUT: the obvious difference is that there is no one here at the PV to do all that get-ready work ahead of time because we are it. We are the ones hired to do all that stuff.
Not to beat a dead horse here, but every old cowman knows that teaching your cattle to hold up and handle outside a corral will pay dividends in the long run. Cows spoil mighty quick when they get to thinking they can outsmart a horse, and so the point is to continually bluff the cows into submission. We hold herd here at the PV for many common sense reasons, but the old-fashioned luxuriousness of being able to handle a bunch of cows out in the open, miles from the nearest corral, is important. In this case, as in most, practice is tedious but makes perfect. The tradition dates back to the grazing districts this ranch was founded on, where PV pairs and bulls ran in common with neighbors’ stock on both Froze-to-Death and Fort Pease (both districts have since been fenced). Come fall gather, reps from every neighboring ranch worked together in week-long gathers; every day the cattle thrown together would be paired out, by brand, into smaller bunches. It was long work. It was often very cold work. But it made for well-behaved cows. And it made for mentally tough cowboys.
There was, of course, a time in my life when I didn’t understand why we had to hold herd. I knew enough to keep my mouth shut, though, and whiled the years away chewing the salt out of my saddle strings. Only one time in my life did my dad invite me to work herd. It was the year 2000, the day before I left home for college, and we were in the middle of a terrible drought. There was no grass left on Froze-to-Death, and so we were gathering all the cows off the district in hot August instead of cold November. It was the last day of a week-long gather, and we were on the far east side, near Starve-to-Death Creek, holding herd on the reservoir called Roach. The day is a series of dusty photos in my memory. Very few PVs had strayed so far east, so just a handful were in the day-herd, and our dear coworker Morris advised my dad on that day, “You ought to let that girl of yours work herd this time… or she’s liable to lose interest.”
He did. And I didn’t.
2 Nordforks are neither here nor there.
We’ve always wrestled calves here at the PV. And it is true that we were short on calf wrestlers this year. (I blame that on my husband’s, and my folks’, habit of waiting to call wrestlers for help until the day before the first branding and then being surprised that none of them can commit the next four weeks of their lives to the PV. I think procurement of wrestlers is a job I will try my own hand at next year. Maybe it’s not as easy as it seems it should be?)
That said, perhaps the year is coming when we won’t be able to get any wrestlers for branding. Maybe it’s true that kids just don’t like to work that hard anymore — I sure find that true of adults these days. Maybe nordforks, those head-holding apparatuses fancied by crews heavy on ropers, are the way of the future. Beau and I don’t want to be so set in tradition that we refuse to move the PV into the future, so we haven’t excluded nordforks as a possibility.
There are a few problems, though:
Beau set up a nordfork many times this branding season, both because we were short-handed and also because he was trying to please dissatisfied crew members. What we found was that Beau was the only member of the crew physically capable of running a nordfork on the ground. Folks, I’m not trying to be smart or braggy about it… just stating a fact. The contraptions, apparently, aren’t as easy to run as it seems they should be. And because Beau has about 12 kites to keep in the air on any given branding day, he can’t be expected to spend the day running the nordfork. From now on, I believe, anybody who promotes nordforks over wrestling ought to be made to run a nordfork on the ground, branding day in and branding day out, until that somebody becomes downright handy at it. Sure, everybody loves to rope, but the reality is that not a single calf gets branded if everybody ropes all day long.
Nordforks might become necessary, but don’t tell me they’re safer than good ol’ wrestlers. The scariest branding season of my life was spent away from the PV on an outfit that used nordforks. I hated the metallic clink of the chains as the head-catches settled over the calves’ heads. I hated the way the ropers’ horses stacked up like sardines holding a line of calves — what if something was to go haywire with somebody’s mount? I hated when a nordfork was improperly removed and a calf windmilled through the branding, his shoulder caught in a head-catch that was staked into the ground. I hated when I screwed up trying to let a double-hocked calf stand, hanging a single leg, causing somebody to have to run to my rescue.
I s’pose it’s mostly about what you’ve gotten used to in life. But one more thing: you’re right if you’ve guessed our branding pens aren’t set up right for using nordforks. But seeing as how my dad has spent a lifetime building steel branding pens all across this ranch that suit his own preferences, we probably won’t be rebuilding them any time soon. Furthermore, this outfit doesn’t even have a panel wagon. Not because we don’t want one. And not because there’s never been a panel wagon on the corporate budget for us at the beginning of the fiscal year, neither.
3 Don’t tell us how handy things were at the last place you worked.
Because if it was that awesome, wouldn’t you still be there? You know, Beau and I like ideas. We like them a lot. And we have lots of our own ideas. We’ve worked long and hard to get to where we are in life, and now that we’re here, it looks as though there won’t be enough time in the years we have left to test out both our ideas and yours. Sorry, but WE will always come first.
The other thing along these same lines is this: If this is your first, or even your tenth, year branding with us, go ahead and assume this is just the way we do things here. You can like it, or you can leave it. You might think we do things goofy, but we kinda think you do things goofy.
4 Once upon a time, men were men and cowbosses cut long ropes.
Dad reminisces wistfully about tough cowbosses he knew who were resolute and swift with their judgments: men who weren’t afraid to cut the needlessly and dangerously long rope of a buckaroo-type taking pleasure in extending the whole darn thing in the branding pen. Men, politically incorrect, who weren’t afraid to unceremoniously dismiss from the branding pen a roper unable to deliver calves quickly, consistently, and near to the fire.
Here at the PV there’s never been a rule that calves need to be double-hocked to be dragged in to the fire. Dad, in a lifetime of experience, has actually found that in some situations it’s beneficial to bring in a calf roped by a single back leg. If the ropers have a short wait, for instance, between catching and dragging in, it’s beneficial to keep a legged calf on its feet as it’s driven, rather than dragged, closer to the fire. And it’s definitely easier on horses to pull single-legged calves (especially if they’re upright) in muddy, uphill, or sandy/silty conditions.
A high-hocked calf is, of course, an unwanted circumstance in any roping pen. Here at the PV, our goal is to get the rope off a high-hocked calf as quickly as possible — and most often that can be accomplished by just bringing the calf in to the wrestlers. Dad has always discouraged foot-backers from rushing in to the cowherd (yes, we keep the cows in with the calves) to chase a high-hocked calf around: it just creates chaos.
One final word of advice: if by chance the cook (that would be me) gets a single chance this year to ride and brand with the crew (my mom kept the kids) — after weeks spent fixing hot meals, mixing and loading five-gallons-at-a-time of Gatorade, and packing the snack cooler in the wee hours of the morning — you’d be best advised not to grimace and shudder while you’re watching her rope. Because I’ve paid my damn dues here.
And cooks don’t forget.
And writers always win.
© Tami Arvik Blake