Ranching Blog

It's branding season here on the ranch.

Ranch Horse Journal

Brandings are about hard work, but also enjoyment of the tradition. PHOTO: Jenn Zeller

Here in the ranch country of South Dakota, “branding season” is in full swing. While I can’t speak for the rest of the ranching world, around here anyway, there are actually more than the four seasons the calendar lists. There’s Spring, Calving Season, Branding Season, Summer, Hay Season, Fall Work/Preconditioning, Fall and Shipping Season and Winter.

Like most ranchers in South Dakota, we calve in the spring, but on our ranch, we calve the latest of anyone in our neck of the woods. We prefer to not fight with Mother Nature, and while she can still conjure up the occasional blizzard or nasty, cold rain storm, in the middle of April, spring is the best time of year to calve due to gorgeous summer days yielding pastures of tall grass and good growing weather for calves.

The favorite season for most people in our industry is branding season. The early morning air is cool and there is an energy in it.  Horses are quietly and uneventfully saddled at sunrise. The wind, often out of the Northwest, is beginning to blow – you can see the grass waving as it travels. Trailer after trailer winds their way down the dusty, well-worn ranch road. Cinches are tightened, bridles are adjusted, chinks are donned, rubber is added to saddle horns, and ropes are often swapped out. 

As the crew long-trots down to the gate, the boss requests we fan out across the ridges, sends a couple people south and off we go. The cows quickly gather up their calves and head in the direction of the corral, often before we’ve even reached them. They know the drill.

Once we’ve arrived near the corral, babies will find themselves sorted from their mamas. The cows will be “worked,” given their inoculations for the year and turned back out into the pasture we just gathered. Between sorting cows and calves, a bit of yelling back and forth, kids riding around on the now warmed up saddle horses, breakfast burritos are passed around, and someone, inevitably, will crack the first beer of the day. Branding day is, after all, a celebration of hard work, a kick-off to the precursor of haying season and summer.

When the cows are all worked, the real fun begins. In true celebratory form, a ranch branding, at least in this part of the country, is at best organized chaos. A sense of community is felt through smiles and laughter, the occasional (ignored) curse word is bandied about as someone misses a perfect heel shot or the Ralgrow gun misfires.

Of course when the work is all done – or almost done – we all look forward to the mouth-watering food that’s usually served family style:  mountain oysters, enchiladas, lasagna, indian tacos, fried chicken, smoked beef brisket, countless types of salads, as well as homemade desserts, all spread across the islands and tables of ranch homes or barns.
At the end of the day, you’ll likely hear laughter, or a good story, while quiet chats are shared between friends.

Jenn Zeller is an aspiring horseman, photographer, freelance writer, barrel racer and collector of horses and chickens.  She resides in South Dakota on The DX Ranch, a third generation cattle ranch where the family raises Angus and Brangus cows as well as Quarter Horses. Contact her at jennifer@thesouthdakotacowgirl.com