- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 12, 2015

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) - The first thing that stood out was the smoke - billowing coils of steam rising from flanks and filling the air with an acrid burning. Then there were the flashes of color - white cowboy hats and blue jeans, the black fur of young Angus calves and the intense orange hue of active flames.

At Biddick Ranch, a recent Saturday was the last day of branding season, and the corral bustled with energy. That morning, eager volunteers wrestled young calves to the ground and marked them with the ranch’s signature brand.

The two dozen men and women who showed up Saturday morning hailed from all walks of life, from 8-year-old Landon Speiser, who was excited to wrestle his first calf, to Steve Tyndall, a doctor who traveled all the way from Nebraska. The group worked fluidly to run a smooth operation - one person would hold down a calf’s hind legs, one would hold its neck and front legs down, and a third volunteer applied irons heated in a propane-fueled branding pot.

Volunteer Russell Austin, who has done cattle branding for 31 years, said the group arrived at 7 a.m. to begin rounding up the cattle, and branding began at 8 a.m.

“It used to be fun when I was a kid, but it’s getting to be more work now,” he said.

For volunteer Cindy Rivera, the first time she saw branding in action came as a shock, but she’s since grown to view the process as an “amazing thing.”

“The first time I saw it I was like, ‘Oh my God, are you serious?’” she said. “All that dust and smoke. Now, I’ve gotten used to it.”

Biddick Ranch’s owners, Pep and Kathy Speiser, have run the place for decades. Today, they have branding down to a fault.

“There’s a number of ways to do it,” Pep Speiser said. “Some people rope and drag them to the fire. That’s kind of what the saying is.”

Because the Speisers participate in the Global Animal Partnership, a program that prohibits ranchers from using implants or antibiotics on their animals, they are discouraged from using the dragging method, Pep Speiser said. Instead, volunteers on horseback bring in large groups of cows and calves, run small groups of cattle into a small corral and pair off to hold each animal down.

“We wrestle them by hand, in other words,” Kathy Speiser said. “We do it so the humans get beat up instead of the calves.”

Generally, the ranch can brand about 300 animals a day with volunteer help, Pep Speiser said.

To leave a distinctive mark on the calves’ skin, the branding irons must be “red-hot,” he said. In the old days, ranchers would heat the irons in a fire, but this was a highly inefficient setup. Many ranchers today use propane to keep the temperature constant, he said.

Every ranch has its own distinctive brand, which must be registered with the Wyoming Livestock Board for a $300 fee.

“Everyone’s done in a certain place, so it’s an identifying mark,” Kathy Speiser said.

Brand identification strongly depends on the part of the animal on which it is placed - the hips, ribs, or shoulder, for instance - and whether it is on one side or both. The Speisers’ brand - a combined S and P for “Pep Speiser” - is placed on the calves’ left hips.

Many brands are designed based on the owners’ initials, though some ranchers prefer more traditional patterns, Pep Speiser said. Biddick Ranch has two older brands the Speisers are slowly phasing out - an ace of clubs that must be placed on both hips, and an “airplane” brand shaped like a pointed club.

Branding isn’t a process ranchers generally enjoy, Pep Speiser said, but they run the risk of having cattle get stolen if they don’t comply with branding laws.

“You wouldn’t believe that there are still cattle rustlers, but they’re worth a lot of money and people will steal them,” Kathy Speiser added. “The brand helps, at least.”

This year, the heifers at Biddick Ranch begin calving in mid-February and finished March 10, Pep Speiser said. In the summertime, bulls and cows are separated to limit the days of gestation.

After examining all the calves to make sure they don’t have any health problems, the Speisers fit them with ear tags and give them vaccinations. The young bulls are castrated with rubber bands that clip over their testicles.

“It’s really painless,” Pep Speiser said. “They don’t even notice what’s happening.”

The entire process is done within 24 hours of the animals’ birth.

“We get ‘em young, cause when they get much older they’re a little harder to catch, for us old guys,” Pep Speiser said, laughing.

The calves are branded when they are fairly young - a few weeks to a few months old.

After branding is completed, the Speisers place the cows and bulls into designated breeding groups. The animals are allowed to mingle through the summer until mid-July, when the bulls are separated.

Typically, females are bred as yearlings, or 1-year-olds, Pep Speiser said. They have their first calves when they are 2 years old and tend to have one a year onward.

“I’ve got a cow that’s 14 years old right now… that would be the extreme high end,” he said. “She’s had a calf every year - she’s had 12 calves. But eight is more common.”

The Speisers say they enjoy the peace and solitude that comes with living miles from the city; their closest companions are their five dogs and the ranch horses.

“Your job is never done,” Kathy Speiser said. “I like everything about the lifestyle. We could go out at any time of the day, riding. When you work together, it makes a tight family.”

But every year in late April and early May, the ranch temporarily becomes a hub of activity, where old friends reunite and new friends jump at the chance to participate in the action.

“It’s a noisy, dirty process,” Kathy Speiser said. “It’s very different.”


Information from: Laramie Boomerang, https://www.laramieboomerang.com

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