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Back Home, At Last

11-10-14, Valley Falls, OR - After two months of work at the Cooper Nuclear Plant in Nebraska, I’m finally back home in Oregon. This was my first time working at Cooper (75 miles south of Omaha, NE) and I had a great time.  It was a good plant with some really great people.  As fun as it was, it was still great to get back home.  I pulled into Valley Falls a week ago. We didn’t waste anytime enjoying ourselves.  The weather has been unseasonably warm.

This is the view going over Moss Pass, 10 miles south of the house.  We took this route on our way to a picnic on the Chewacan River,  Along the way, I spied 6 pair of cows that my buddy Geren has been missing. It looks like they are slowly making their own way back to the ranch.  As all of the gate are open, they should be back home in the next week or two.

Hershey, running across the Chewacan River.

Saturday, we were invited to a branding at Geren’s other ranch in Burns, OR, 100 miles to the north. We had about a 120 calves to brand, inoculate and castrate. These were either calves that were born after the spring branding, or those that somehow got missed in the spring.  Brandings are a great western tradition, where friends and neighbors show up help out.  The event is a combination of work and fun and a great time to strengthen bonds with neighbors.

There are two groups of people working a branding, the ropers and the ground crew. I decided to try my hand at roping, so after a little prep work, I put Brandy and Doc in the horse trailer and brought them along.

On the way to the ranch, we passed close by this herd of seven bull elk. It was elk hunting season and there were a couple of parked trucks in the area, but I think this bunch escaped scot-free.

A branding is a real bedlam of activity, which can be most closely described as semi-controlled chaos. Everyone has to be constantly in their toes to avoid being run down by a calf, horse, rope or other people.  Occasionally a calf will swing through a bunch of people, a horse may pitch a cowboy or someone might get sprayed with blood while notching an ear,  But through it all, there’s always a hearty laugh and a good time.

Before I got her, I think Brandy had been roped off of before; however, I’m quite sure she had never participated in a branding.  She started off pretty excited (you can tell by her high head), then settled down a bit, before finally getting so excited (45 minutes later) that I had to put her up for the day.

A couple hundred head of cattle were being held in an enclosure adjacent to the makeshift branding pen. We would drive about 50 at a time, before roping out the calves to be branded.

The best way I can describe our attempt at roping calves was, “it’s a piece of work in progress”.  It takes a lot of skill on the part of both the roper and his mount to head and heal a calf and drag it up to the fire.  Most of these calve were considerably larger that spring calves and weighed between 300 and 500 pounds.  When you’ve got a calf by the neck, with your rope dally-ed around the saddle horn, it’s similar to having a large sailfish on the end of a fishing line. After a short while of this, my mare got a little too excited and became difficult to control.  Before I ended up getting pitched off, I put her up and retired to the ground crew.

I started off throwing roped calves down on their side and transferring the neck rope to the front legs. In this position, the ropers can apply a pressure to keep the calf still while it is branded and doctored.  In this picture, Geren is castrating a young bull calf that is already sporting a new “Lazy Diamond” brand. In the background, I’m astride another roped calf and transferring the neck rope to the front feet.

Brands are generally registered by state.  Geren owns the Lazy Diamond brand, which is applied to the left flank, about three inches back of the point of the shoulder.  While it is cruel to brand a calf with a hot iron, it’s about the only mostly-fool proof way of establishing ownership.  With miles and miles of fencing on both private and public land, a ranchers cows will occasionally end up on his neighbor’s property and a neighbor’s cows will end up on his land. Without the brand it would be next to impossible to sort out which cow belongs to which rancher. Also, it goes along way in discouraging cattle thievery.  Ear tags don’t work, as they can be changed or are occasionally lost it rough country. While branding this calf, I borrowed a line from John Wayne in the move “The Cowboys” - “I’ve been smelling this for 40 minutes (40 years for John Wayne) and I’m still not used to it!”.

Near the end of the day, I saddled up Doc and let him have a go at it. While we never roped a calf (hard on a horse that doesn’t neck rein and has a driving horse’s hard mouth) we still had a great time.

Doc’s an old pro at moving cows, so we tried to sort out unbranded calves for the ropers.

This is Geren Moon on his great horse Wally. When Wally got a little excited, Geren walked him up to me and said, “pet my horse” . After a minute of me rubbing his forehead and neck, he settled right down and went back to work.  A couple of other cowboys weren’t quite so lucky. Their mounts got a little too excited and bucked off their riders.  But in the best of western traditions, they knocked the dust off their hats, grinned and climbed back in the saddle.

Doc was happiest when he found a young lady that wanted to climb up on his back.

Geren’s wife Candace also took Doc for a spin. Candace is probably one of the greatest riders I have met.  It’s pure pleasure to watch her charging through the trees, dodging limbs and jumping ditches as chases a stray cow during a drive.

The only thing I can say about this last picture of Candace’s brother on Doc - “Who says that alcohol and big horse don’t go well together?”

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