Theodore Roosevelt owned two ranches in the badlands of Dakota Territory in the late 19th century. At that time, ranchers allowed their cattle to roam free with all the other herds in the area. Twice a year (in the spring for branding and in the fall for weaning), they would round up the herds and sort them by reading the brands. Brands are specific marks that are burned into the hide of the calves with a hot iron at branding, ensuring that the ensuing scar may be read throughout the animal’s life. The brand was a necessity for ranches at that time as TR describes in his book, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail. Roosevelt himself had three brands – the Elkhorn (pictured on the left), the Maltese Cross (pictured on the right), and a triangle which was used in conjunction with the Elkhorn.
Image of branding irons courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. Bill of sale between Theodore Roosevelt and Sylvane M. Ferris, April 7, 1902. From the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation collection.
Ranches such as TR’s no longer exist; the days of open range are long over. Ranchers today must fence in their land and separate their herds from others. Ranching has not changed all that much though. The objective remains the same – to bring a herd of young animals to market at the appropriate time. Ranchers are still governed by market prices, weather, and luck. Spring roundup is no longer the large gathering that TR describes in this article, but brands are still used as identifiers in the event that an animal crawls under a fence or other such mishaps.
Many ranchers in the western Dakotas still brand the old way, which involves roping and wrestling the calves. After the cow-calf pairs are brought in and sorted on branding day, the cows are vaccinated and turned out into the pasture. The calves are kept in a series of pens from which they will be worked. Depending on the size of the pen (and the size of the crew), two or more ropers will enter the pen horseback and set to work. They rope the back hooves, dally the rope (wind it around the saddle horn), and drag a calf out of the smaller pen.
Roping calves at a branding. Image courtesy of author.
As the calf passes the opening, the first two wrestlers in line must flip the calf. These two people are standing on opposite sides of the opening in the pen and one grabs the rope while the other grabs the calf’s tail. They have to time it just right so that the rope is pulled up while the tail is pulled down. After the calf is on the ground, the wrestlers take up their positions and pull the rope off the hooves, releasing the roper to catch another calf. Once the wrestlers have the calf on the ground, it is vaccinated and branded before being released to join its mother.
Wrestling and branding a calf at a branding in western North Dakota. Image courtesy of author.
I was taught to wrestle calves as a twelve-year-old and have not kept up with the skill as well as I might have. After college, I moved on to helping with the branding meal, pretending that the women needed my help. This was a rather obvious attempt to save myself from the possibility of feeling like a fool. We branded the calves on my parents’ ranch over the weekend so they are ready to be turned out to pasture. They will spend their summer days grazing in the breaks of the North Dakota badlands in much the same way the herds TR kept would have done over one hundred years ago.