Dave Carty
Dave Carty
HEARTLAND USA  |  May/June 2006
 
Branding Time

When it’s branding time, some ranches still do it the old-fashioned way.

I think this is a disaster." Jane Glennie, an oxygen tank looped around the weathered brown skin of her neck, is watching a dozen cowboys herd 300 cows and calves into a branding pen. It’s been raining all week. Montana, in the middle of the worst drought since the thirties, hasn’t seen this much rain in years, maybe ever.

But a hot branding iron won’t burn wet hair. Over the thunder of the herd, cowboys whistle, whips crack, and Glennie’s Cairn Terrier, Oscar, cowers under her feet. "He hates the sound of gunshots," she explains. At that moment, several cows break loose from the heard. Two riders rein in their horses to go after them. Glennie mutters under her breath.

Beef Carlson, Glennie’s son in law, rides up. Rain drips off his black Stetson.

"I don’t know if we can do this," he says. "We’re gonna have to dump them."

Glennie stares out across the prairie. On any other day, you could see the Crazy Mountains from here. "I think we’re done," she finally says. Carlson sighs. A moment later, a cowboy swings open the gate, and the herd surges back out across the prairie.

Glennie grew up in town: Harlowton, Montana, population 1063 and shrinking. Like most prairie towns, people are leaving for someplace, anyplace, they can find a job. So Glennie went to college in Missoula and studied P.E. and physical therapy. But she had other plans.

"I told my folks when I got out I was gonna do what I wanted to do," she said. And what Glennie wanted to do was ranch. She married young and moved to the ranch with her husband. He died years ago and she, her daughter Janie, and Beef have been running the place ever since.

The Glennie Ranch is big even by Montana standards. She raises hundreds of cattle on the place, and with the rain, this year promises to be a good one. But ranching is changing. Outfits across the west are selling to out-of-state owners, who arrive for a few weeks every summer, put on their carefully scuffed boots, and play cowboy. Others have gone modern, branding with metal chutes and branding tables. But Glennie and some of her neighbors still embrace tradition, roping and dragging calves from a corral to waiting "wrasslers," who throw them down, brand them, castrate them, clip their ears, and inoculate them, all in less time than it takes to tell about it.

"It’s a neighbor thing," Glennie says. "And besides, we like doing it this way. It’s easier on the calves."

But nobody likes working in the rain. Finally, on Tuesday morning, the forecast shows a 12-hour break in the weather, and at 6:00 a.m., Carlson puts in a call to anyone who will answer his phone. Amazingly, by 10:00 he has a crew ready to ride.

An hour later, they bring the herd streaming down out of the hills. Hundreds of angus and black baldies, bawling, the sound like the rumble of a distant waterfall. To the west, the Crazies gleam under a foot of new snow. By the time the last of the herd is pushed into the corral, several of the ropers are already shaking out their loops. Among them is Janie Glennie, who went to college at Montana State on a basketball scholarship but majored in breakaway roping, winning several titles. Beef had already finished a football career there and was team roping when he met the woman who would later become his wife. They had a lot in common: all either one of them ever wanted to do was ranch and rodeo.

Everything happens at once at a branding. The wrasslers, most of them young men from town, fan out in a loose-knit chain across an open gate while the ropers push their horses through the bawling, milling herd. A rope flicks out like a snake’s tongue and a second later a calf is dragged, back feet first, to the wrasslers, who tackle it and drag it out of the way. A brand singes hair, and the cutter, his pocket knife clenched in his teeth, kneels and finds the scrotum. Someone clips an ear while another woman gives the calf an inoculation with a sausage-sized syringe. In a couple minutes it’s all over, and the calf trots out half dazed onto the prairie. But recovery is quick.

"They’ll all be mothered up by tomorrow," one cowboy says.

Zach Jones is from the nearby Two Dot ranch, and at 26, has been branding since he was 4. His long black hair juts out from under a baseball cap and he wears wrap-around sunglasses.

"It was the hardest thing when I was a kid," he says. "You’d get so damn hungry. All the older guys could go until the middle of the afternoon, but kids have got to eat." He doesn’t recall ever being instructed in what to do, or giving instructions to others. "You just do it," he says.

Someone is groaning. Jones walks over and grins down at a young cowboy who has just been kicked in the leg. "You’re not hurtin’ that bad, are you?" he says.

Like a lot of today’s ranchers, Jones went to college, and is just a few credits shy of a teaching degree. But teaching isn’t in him.

"When I got to thinking about it, I decided that what I really wanted to do is this," he says, looking around. Calves are bawling, and he has to shout to be heard. "I didn’t want a job where I went to town everyday, where I was always around people all the time." A calf gets dragged over his feet and he wipes the blood from his pocket knife. "Gotta cut," he says.

In less than three hours, it’s over. Cowboys ride into the corral and push out the few remaining cows. And for the first time all morning it is quiet, nothing but the wind over the prairie.

Beef Carlson breaks the silence. "I’m gonna get started on those steaks," he announces.

Everybody knows the way to the cookhouse. The Glennie Ranch is a beautiful place, like something out of a movie set. White buildings with red roofs, red barns and log cabins. Through the center of it all runs the American Fork River.

Bob Hathaway hobbles up. He’s been cowboying all his life. Like everyone else, he got the 6:00 call and showed up.

"When I got old enough to work, seems like that’s all I did," he says. He’s 66. He points at his knee. "See that?" One of his legs is as crooked as a juniper branch. "I used to walk with my foot all rolled in like that. Hurt like hell." Hathaway got a knee replacement a few years back and now is as spry as he ever was. He limps into the cookhouse. Across the driveway, the ranch peacock is staring down the ranch cat.

Carlson is manning the barbecue grill. "There’s getting to be fewer and fewer places that are branding like this," he says. "They use those calf tables...But we’ll sell the place before we do that." Someone passes him a plate and he forks a pile of steaks onto it. Carlson loves this life. "If you can’t do it off a horse, it ain’t worth doin’," he says. And it would be hard to find a man or woman on the place who would disagree.

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