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A true local tradition

Editor’s note: Several longtime locals, including resident Randall Day, recently helped out with a branding gathering at the McCabe Ranch. His story and photos, printed here, show that ranching is still part of life in the Roaring Fork Valley, and they give readers a glimpse into a spring tradition that hasn’t changed in decades.It was a brisk Sunday morning. The sun was up but it was a little cloudy, so the easy breeze felt a little colder than it really was. I was driving to a new location where we were going to brand the calves. I noticed a couple of horse trailers parked in various places and the saddled horses tied to the side. People began to move into place.I took a little snooze while I waited for the crew to gather. The cattle were in the field, eating; the calves were meandering and playing. The crew began to assemble – we unloaded the propane and the fire pots where the brands would be heated. There were coolers with lunch in them, a huge grill and the supplies needed to make a fire. There was also a stock tank with ice and cold drinks.I noticed that people were now on their horses and ready to go. The signal given, they began to move the cattle toward a gate that would lead them to our temporary pen. It was there that they started to sort the cows away from their calves. In a short time, nothing but the calves were left in the pen. They congregated at one end of the pen and the branding would take place at the other.

We had some shade from the “quakies,” but it was a little nippy and shade wasn’t exactly what we needed when we were all standing still. Soon that wouldn’t be the case as we lit the fires for the irons. Little boxes of medications and vaccinations were arranged. A couple of the crew would do nothing but administer the necessary shots for the calves. The guys would team up and prepare to get a hold of a calf, one man on each end and hold them while the shots were given, and yes, the brand. The cows watched through the fence while junior was initiated into the herd. Once finished, the small group of calves was returned to pasture where they would pair up and go about their business.

The vests and coats were shed, the fire pots roared with the sound of the flames and the irons turned red. The sky cleared a little and we were happy about the shade. Occasional breaks for a rest or drink of water came every so often. Early on in the process a man with a video camera arrived. He explained later that he is making a movie about “the last cowboy” and that it would be released this summer for use in valley schools, perhaps a showing on Denver PBS and, with luck, beyond. The film will be based on Anita Witt’s book, “I Remember One Horse,” and will depict the ranch life of the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond.We went about our business while he moved in and out of the activity from different perspectives. We kept an eye on the shrinking number of calves remaining to be branded. All was progressing without issue as the weather turned cool, then warm as the clouds appeared and disappeared. We lit a fire in the grill, as the number of calves grew smaller. When we were finished, the roar of the propane flames stopped and we were left to feel good about a job well done. We had several teams who held the calves, three people branding, two people giving shots and two shuttling the hot irons over the fence. There were friends, family and pets looking on from outside the activity. The crew had branded close to 200 calves in a little more than three hours. It was a time to watch, talk, visit about just about everything and appreciate the process of branding in accordance with the laws of the state of Colorado. The little critters need to have their name on their side before they go off to the next phase of life … that is, summer camp in the high country.We rolled the brats and burgers onto the grill and waited as the smell of a well-deserved lunch wafted across the crew. A truck pulled up with a couple of large picnic tables. In a short time the food was arranged, and the crew started filing by and gathering up a lunch and talking and joking about the morning’s activity.When we had all eaten one more brat or burger than we really needed, we stood and talked. The clouds moved in and midafternoon brought a couple of showers. Undaunted, a group remained in place – there were a few cold drinks left and the conversation was good. A few people with horses rode back to their trailers and went on home.These are friends who know what needs to be done and answer the call to help. You probably would have seen them at brandings earlier this spring and will see them again in the next. A look at the pasture produced a quiet herd of cattle – calves sleeping near their mothers, everyone quiet and content as if nothing had taken place.That was branding, 2006, at the McCabe Ranch in Snowmass.


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