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What’s your beef with branding?

Jenny Johnston

As Mother Nature marks the much-anticipated arrival of spring with warmer, longer days, it too marks the time for ranchers to come together to participate in the annual rite of passage known as springtime branding.

Branding not only serves the purpose of proof of ownership, by helping to keep cattle from getting mixed up in a neighbor’s herd but it also helps to prevent theft. It serves a very real and relevant agricultural purpose, to differentiate one’s herd from another and has been used as a means of ownership since ancient Egyptian times where 4,000-year- old tomb paintings were uncovered that depict livestock being branded.

Colorado alone has over 30,000 registered livestock brands on file. It is rich in history and an integral part of ranching culture. Brands are oftentimes generational and passed down in families as tangible tributes of historical lineage. It is an experience to brand cattle where oftentimes, neighboring ranchers, families and friends come together to help lend a hand in the hard work.

My daughter Reese loves sorting cattle and jumps at any opportunity to hop on her horse and chase cows. So last month, when she was invited to ride along for the second year in a row and help round up cattle for springtime branding, no one had to ask her twice.

There is an unspoken communication between cowboys rounding up the herd. It is coordinated perfection to watch them work. I stayed for a bit and watched in the distance. The only way I could differentiate her was by her pink Carhart jacket zigzagging through the brush. She earned her keep, bringing the steers up the fence line and into the corral with the rest of the cowboys that day.

To watch a successful cattle branding operation is akin to synchronized swimmers chasing uncooperative fish. These cowboys and cowgirls have to intuitively predict where the cattle will go, head them off, herd them up and round them in. It is art in motion.

Proud of her accomplishments from the day’s adventures, I shared a photo online of her hard work only to have social media moguls deem it “animal cruelty.” My photo, which depicted a cowboy branding a steer with my daughter in the background tending to the fire with a branding iron, was taken down and my account was threatened with suspension.

I had to pause for a moment and consider: When did we as a society decide something as steeped in tradition and history as branding cattle would itself be branded as cruelty? Which begs the question: What’s your beef with branding? Is it also cruel if I post a photo of someone eating a hamburger at McDonalds? What about a photo of someone not finishing that burger and throwing it away uneaten, raised to end up in a fast food garbage can?

It is cruel to post a photo of myself wearing leather boots? I considered asking the person who removed my photo what material his or her shoes, belt or wallet were made from. It would seem to me that people who have no direct experience with cattle ranching have too many irons in other people’s fires.

There was no Sara McLachlan music playing in the background on the ranch this day or any day. Ranchers are some of the most caring and attentive people to an animal’s needs, especially their own, that I have ever encountered. The herd is their livelihood and they are incredible stewards of the land and the animals that roam it.

I’m glad my daughter has had the opportunity to be a part of the process at such an early age in her life. I am glad she understands dinner from an agricultural perspective. She chooses to eat meat because she has participated in the process. She not only knows where her food comes from but she considers and appreciates it when she eats it.

When you have participated agriculturally in the process, you can’t help but have a different level of respect for the animal. Meat tastes better with that extra moment of firsthand consideration.

Once you have raised, branded, butchered and prepared an animal it makes a trip to the grocery store have a little deeper meaning and allows a greater respect for the ranchers and the animals they raise and humanely care for. Branding is part of the process and the process is part of the agricultural heritage the Great American West has been built upon.

Jenny Johnston is a fourth-generation Durango local, part-time rodeo announcer and full-time wrangler to two lil’ buckaroos.