Trevin Baumann holds a calf with one hand while giving his dog Max reassuring hug.
“Brands are the classic language of the American West,” said one of Montana’s most celebrated writers, Ivan Doig.
That cowboy shorthand continues today . . . at least for a while.
Some day soon you may have to pay to see what was once a common spring ritual in this state we call the last best place. Some day you may need a ticket to the last best branding.
There may be bleachers replacing the empty expanse of prairie or pasture. There will probably be designated parking. And perhaps concessions where you’ll pay for the privilege of sampling rocky mountain oysters, fresh from the arena.
The vanishing of traditional branding has something to do with technology. Roundups can be done on four-wheelers. Pens with special chutes filter calves to calving tables. A couple of hands can do what many hands used to do.
Jennifer Baumann administers the A of the Baumann NA brand.
And, no doubt, larger corporate operations have something to do with the slow disappearance of the old-style branding that wound up with a big barbecue, kegs of beer and maybe even a barn dance. The big operations probably figure it’s better to just pay the help and be done with it.
That’s why—given the opportunity recently to attend the kind of traditional branding Laramie Baumann’s family hosts north of Hardin—it was a privilege not to be passed up.
Baumann’s branding is a gathering not just of cows and calves, but community.
“I cover from Miles City to Hot Springs,” Scott Johnson, a Billings ag banker, tells me. “And there are fewer and fewer of the old-style brandings where it’s a community of friends and neighbors. More and more it’s a handful of guys working a calving table. That’s why it’s a pleasure to come to this one.”
Johnson is not your big city banker in suit and tie. He grew up ranching and when he shows up he looks pure cowboy. He knows how to throw a rope and he’s more than willing to dismount and take a turn with the branding iron or the nut cutter. The latter is the box cutter blade used to render young bulls into steers.
Johnson is here at Baumann’s branding more out of neighborliness than financial interest. He’s one of the first to arrive and last to leave, rendering his help at the first round of branding on Nine Mile and then the second along the river bottom of the Bighorn River.
The smell of the branding irons, the sizzle of hot irons on the hides, the bawling calves and bellering cows are all part of the vista of his and many others’ history. Barb Skelton, who owns one of the first homesteads in Montana—the Hardenbrook Ranch near Stanford—says branding brings back “first the smell of a wood fire, then the sizzle of hot irons in the fire.”
Baumann uses propane heaters instead of wood, but the sizzle of the hot irons is the same. Two are needed for his brand, an N with a hanging A, administered on the left hip. (A brand with both letters on it might smear; two makes a sharper brand). Baumann’s brand is a century old. His dad, Lanny, seared it onto his calves just as Laramie does on his. The brand evolved from Lanny’s wife, Shirlene’s, side of the family. Her grandfather Frank Parker used it, but it may have been used before him. The family joke is that it stood for Native American, or maybe Not Applicable.
It’s not impossible that NA stood for Native American. Famous Parkers were Indians. Seneca Chief Ely Parker served Ulysses S. Grant as a lieutenant colonel faithfully during the Civil War. He spent a good deal of time in the West, where he sired children. Perhaps that possible family connection would be Not Applicable, but history tells of more intertwined connections. There were other Parkers, too, who knew their horses, cows and brands.
They also know something about trains, banks and hideouts. Robert Leroy Parker, better known as Butch Cassidy, was one. So, who knows? That sturdy cowboy stature you see in Laramie and his sons, Lane and Trevin, might have historic precedents from cowboys and Indians or from lawmen and outlaws. It was often a fine line separating the two. Those on the wrong side of that line soon learned what it was like to have cows with another’s brand on them, even if hidden by alteration. Rustlers got a lesson at the low end of a rope. Protecting a brand was essential. It’s how you get paid. Whatever brand is on the cow, the money goes to that brand’s owner.
Members fof the ground crew, some of them Hardin High wrestlers, enjoy a brief break before the next round of branding.
Brands have been seared onto beef slaughtered and sold from Chicago stockyards, historically. But beef with Baumann brands have likely landed on tables in Japan as well as New York City. It’s a brand on irons that have traveled all over Montana, from the Clarks Fork to Nine Mile Creek.
Lanny’s brand stood for integrity and grit. He has a lifetime around horses and cattle; ranching was his vocation and his passion. His other passion was youth rodeo, and many a youngster learned the right way to ride and rope from the man with the NA brand. Laramie, who partnered with his dad, creating Baumann Livestock, is evidence of good stock. Sturdy and strong, Laramie makes sure the family brand continues. It’s not just a seared side of a calf, it’s an emblem. People know Baumann and know it stands for good ranching practices, honesty and respect. The brand is family, tradition, legacy, heritage. It stands for the past, present and future, something more enduring than iron.
Whatever it’s derivations, the brand is now in the hands of Laramie, his wife Jennifer and the sons, secure and destined for many more decades. It’s on irons sizzling in branding pits the day that family, friends, neighbors—a community of helping hands—gather at Nine Mile, where they begin gathering the cow-calf pairs. While some go to bring the bawling pairs in, others hook up the corrals. Yet others fire up the branding pits.
There are youngsters no taller than a fender making themselves useful. Teenage boys and girls flirt and fight. The boys show their mettle and muscle wearing skimpy T-shirts in the early morning cold, chilled further by the wind. This is akin to an Amish barn-raising where everyone lends a hand. Laramie’s family will show up at their neighbors’ brandings just as they show up at his.
A roper misses both hind hocks, but this calf will go down easy and come out without splayed legs.
They all know their place. The best ropers drag out the calves, tethered from their saddle horns. They dally and drag. Strong-backed youngsters wrestle the calves down as soon as they’re out of the corral for the vaccinations and branding. Chaps flap, ropes swirl, smoke twirls up, leather and lasso—it’s all a medley of motion as the day seeps toward noon.
The “branding”—the term describes the whole event, not the particular action—actually begins before dawn. Portable panels are being put up to make corrals. Riders head out to gather the cows and calves. Cattle move better early, before the heat of the day. That applies to the humans as well.
With the sun up, everything moves quickly, from those firing up the propane heaters to those laying out the syringes and vaccine and tagging guns. Baumann has to brand roughly 350 calves, ranging in age from 3 days to 3 months. His calves are cream-colored, the product of Black Angus heifers and white Charolais bulls. Mixed in are some Corriente cattle, a Mexican breed with horns, raised principally for his son to practice roping.
Cows and calves comingle in the pens until the cows are sorted out. They bawl outside, circling the corrals while their offspring bawl inside. Soon the ropers enter.
“It’s synchronized chaos,” Dan Klingenstein (father-in-law)says as the real work begins. “Klinger,” a mechanic at the local Chevrolet dealership, has been to more brandings than he can remember. “And they all are like this, where you got someone with a red-hot brand right next to someone who’s trying to inoculate and two kids holding a squirming calf.”
Those with the branding irons always have the right-of-way, for obvious reasons.
The Baumann branding is a tradition, where the lessons of Laramie’s dad, Lanny, are respected.
As dawn breaks, neighbors and friends wait for the gathering of cow and calves near Nine Mile, north of Hardin. Riders have been out since first dawn to roust out the cow-calf pairs from the woods and brush to herd them toward the corrals.
“I learned the right way to rope from Lanny. You go for both hind hocks,” says Mallory Edgar, a Rocky Mountain College student whose 4.0 GPA is as perfect as her roping. On-lookers exclaim when she not only ropes two hind hocks but two hind hocks on two calves, dragging both outside the pen to waiting handlers.
“That’s a one-in-10,000 deal, roping two calves like that,” says Brenda Koch, a Billings school administrator, admiring Mallory’s prowess.
Lanny’s lessons also include how to castrate. (Caution: Readers sensitive to cowboy slang should probably move on to one of Ed’s church reviews.)
“In the old days, those old cowboys just used their pocketknives and they’d just lop off the whole deal,” Mallory explains, meaning, but not saying, the “nut sack.” The problem with that, beyond using an unsanitary pocketknife, was it meant bleeding, an open wound and susceptibility to infection.
“Lanny taught the right way. You use a clean blade soaked in the soapy water, cut off the sack, and extract the testicles by pulling them out. You don’t cut them out.”
The seminal fluid tubes are severed, but you don’t get bleeding. A disinfectant is squirted on the area as an extra precaution. Taking the extra steps means not losing as many as 15 or 20 calves later to infection. Whether the so called “nut sack” is extracted the old way or the new way, there are more than a few that will be mischievously tossed among the high school kids ranked alongside the pens to “catch” the calves dragged out by the ropers.
This, too, is synchronized. Good ropers will bring out calves at the pace of the ground crew, keeping from three to five teams busy, but not overloaded. (One of the downsides of the calving table is it’s slow, one calf at a time, instead of multiple. When you have 300 or more head to brand, a calving table is an all-day job.)
After the first brandiing on Nine Mile, crews load the panels to head down to the second section along the Bighorn River, where they’ll re-create the early morning setup for another 100 head.
While ropers, some with chaps, some with spurs, and not all with cowboy hats, guide their horses into the pens, another crew is mustered to administer all the meds. Laramie has to be the maestro of this orchestrated work. There’s a vaccine against blackleg; a fly tag to ward off flies and pink eye; wormer is administered with a spray gun; a nasal spray prevents dust pneumonia and an implant promotes efficient growth. Different color chalk markers are employed to identify which calves have received all the ministrations and by whom.
The ground crew consists of many of Laramie’s sons’ friends. Lane, now an engineering student at Montana Tech, who was co-valedictorian with Mallory three years ago, and Trevin, a high school rodeo roper and steer wrestler, have rounded up some of their buddies. There are wrestlers from Hardin High as well as some comely co-eds. The girls are just as rowdy as the boys when it comes to tossing nut sacks and also just as muscular in holding down calves while they get tagged, inoculated and branded. Mud makes no exception for genre. All butts are smeared.
Laramie’s family shows up, from brothers to brothers-in-law. One of the latter, Chad Guptill, brings his young son, Jace, who quickly jumps in to help hold down calves. Jennifer, a Hardin school administrator, wields a brand. One of her friends, Jody Metcalf, a third-grade teacher, administers the ear tag gun.
This is Koch’s third branding this spring with more to come as she, like the others here, will pitch in to help friends on a schedule established long ago.
“Everyone pretty much knows who brands when, so you don’t have everyone branding the same day.”
As for the testicles, gone are the days when they were served battered and deep fried at the end of the branding. Instead, today’s menus include Shirlene’s special corn sloppy joes, lots of potato salad, cakes and plenty of beer.
“Anyone who wants to have the nuts can have them,” someone shouts early in the day, but in a concession to modern tastes, not many clamor to collect them. Instead they’re flipped on the ground where cow dogs gulp them down.
That sadly is another downside to the disappearing old-school brandings. Testicle festivals—those annual rites of spring that once abounded like balsam root blooms—are vanishing as well, a result of not being able to procure enough testicles.
That may have to be a sequel: The Last Best Testy Fest.