Branding day: Real cowboys round up herd


MOUNT VERNON, Ohio – The last of the autumn leaves were falling, but the grass was still green under a heavy drizzle as a herd of cows and their calves emerged from the brush followed by men on horseback.

Cowboys. Hats, chaps and spurs, the works.

But we’re not in Texas – it’s Knox County, Ohio, near Fredericktown, on a 200-acre farm owned by Charlie McFarland.

Change in plans. Charlie had milked cows for years before he decided to “give it up” before he starved to death.

He bought a couple of trucks and trailers and now hauls livestock and equipment for a living.

His land, mostly hay fields and creek-divided pastures, was going to be bush hogged a couple of times a year and that was it, another farm without livestock.

Then along came his friend and neighbor, Brandon Smith.

Brandon had a small herd of beef cattle and a couple of roping horses.

He enjoyed working the cows with horses and wanted more cattle, but didn’t have the land.

Charlie offered him a lease on his land, and he leased another piece nearby for a total of about 250 acres.

It was enough hay and pasture for 50 commercial Angus crossbred cows to graze and raise a calf crop.

The big day. In the fall the herd needs to be rounded up, vaccinated, tagged and branded, and bull calves have to be castrated.

Brandon has a bunch of friends who enjoy working cattle on horseback as much as he does, so they all get together for “branding day.”

It’s a daylong celebration of life, kind of the way it used to be with modern touches.

Adventure. One of the men, Claude Robertson, is a cowboy to the bone, who lives in Mount Vernon.

He and my husband have worked together, and he has let me ride his roping horse.

It was he who invited us on this adventure.

I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. Unfortunately, that Saturday morning the threat of rain forced my husband, Francis, to go finish up a construction job.

Ready to go. The Smiths are very well organized. On a flat spot by the old bank barn they set up a series of pipe gate pens and a squeeze chute.

All the vet supplies, ear tags, tools and even a can of WD-40 were on a table by the chute.

My only disappointment was that there was no fire with a glowing bed of coals and red hot branding irons.

Instead, there was a generator, a very long extension cord and an electric branding iron. Well, after all, this is the 21st century.

Bringing the herd in. The men left on their horses up the road to drive the largest group of cows and calves down from the hilly pasture.

Helpers, friends and neighbors stayed behind and waited at the barn.

Soon, off in the distance, we heard the lowing of cattle and knew the herd was on its way.

We helpers watched for traffic until the herd was safely penned up.

Brandon, who didn’t know if I rode, offered me his wife’s horse, Barney, for the short ride.

Ol’ Barney is a dream to ride even when you are trying to take pictures with a long-lens camera.

Going back. With that group penned up, the cowboys went into a horseback huddle, the boss went over the game plan and they came out ready.

Cows and calves would be separated and the cows processed first. Then, after lunch, we would deal with the calves.

Everyone worked calmly and the group was divided quickly.

There was a lot of loud mooing as the mommas lost track of their babies, even though they were only separated by a fence.

The cows would be vaccinated and wormed, have lost ear tags replaced and branded, if not already.

Through the chute. The branding iron was plugged in and two cowboys began cutting out cows and sending them through the chute.

Brandon manned the headgate and identified each cow as she passed through.

I think he knew each cow without reading ear tags and he told the crew what had to be done.

Everyone took turns with chores and before we knew it, it was lunch time.

Brandon said he didn’t pay much, but the help gets fed well!

More to do. The men did eat well, but didn’t hang around. There were calves to be roped.

The cowboys were in their element. They worked two calves at a time, heeling calves, roping both hind legs and laying them down.

It’s a lot easier on a calf than a neck rope, and the crew is less apt to get kicked.

Cowboys on foot would hold the calf down, and Brandon supervised while the calf got vaccinated and wormed, ear tagged, branded and castrated.

In something like two minutes, the calf would be sporting a new Bar-S brand on its right hip and be back with the cows, complaining to its mom.

Not just neighbors. These cowboys of all ages came from all over the state of Ohio to be part of this roundup.

Two of them, Joe and Ray Raber of Charm, Ohio, are big Amish guys who rope a lot and have taken their horses as far as Montana to work.

They have a shop in Charm where Joe deals in horses and makes chaps, saddles and tack.

Ray is a farrier who works with the Cytek method of shoeing and trimming.

Many of the horses at the roundup wore Cytek shoes, but that is another story.

Old and young. The cowboys came from all corners of the state, some driving more than three hours one way.

And there was a 40-year spread in their ages.

Retired school teacher Dale Adams has cattle and rides his horse almost every day.

Young Bub Neely roped his first calf that day using a rope his wife got him for Christmas.

The guys cheered him on and from the grin on his face you knew he was having the time of his life.

Steve Hibinger from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, who helps Brandon with his grazing program, came to watch.

He felt he could get the job done faster, but he admitted it wouldn’t be as much fun.

All done. Before they knew it, all the calves were done.

The constant, loud mooing had stopped as all the cows found their calves and consoled them.

Wet and caked with mud and cow dung, Brandon and Donna walked among the herd to record ear tag numbers.

Laughable. There were a couple of laughable incidents.

Chip Oder ear tagged his glove to a calf’s ear, and a calf wiggled a rope up around its waist and took Bub for a ride through the cow pies.

Not counting castrations, the calves and cowboys came through the day intact.

Boy, was it worth it. We all had a great time, except perhaps those bull calves, and I can hardly wait until next year.


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