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For Western cattle ranchers, the annual branding ritual is a community gathering that combines ancient traditions and modern marketing

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Wednesday, July 11, 2018 – Page A1

VERMILION, ALTA. -- Walker Westman scampers. He scampers through a crowd of people buzzing around with hot irons, an ear-piercing gun, syringes loaded with antibiotics, vaccines and painkillers. He scampers among cowboys mounted on horses who are dragging calves using ropes that tie each young bovine's hind legs together. He scampers up to a calf lying on its left side - hind legs fastened, head secured in a metal contraption, torso stretched taut.

"That one is a bull," Walker says, pointing to the young animal.

Walker is five years old, and his uncle is teaching him how to castrate bull calves.

Walker's job is to carry a bucket of iodine to keep the operating tools clean.

His uncle kneels inches from the underside of the bull calf and snips off the bottom of its scrotum. This gives him access to the animal's testicles. The sacs are creamy white, veins visible.

He gingerly tugs on one, back and forth, back and forth, stretching it bit by bit. Snip. He casts the sac aside.

"You have to take your time and be gentle," his uncle says. "If you bust it off, it bleeds."

Seconds ago, the calf was a future bull. Now, it is a steer calf.

It is branding day on the Westman farm, 27 kilometres southwest of Vermilion, Alta. Branding is an umbrella term for the work that takes place on cattle operations in the West each spring and it covers everything from communal meals to castrations. Dozens of family members and neighbours are volunteering at the Westmans' branding, which starts with an old-fashioned cattle drive.

Branding days are part of Prairie culture - business necessities that, as a bonus, braid communities together through work, beer and food. People bring their horses to help. The Westmans serve three meals a day.

Kids search in the dirt for discarded testicles and throw them at their buddies. Neighbours pay back unwritten IOUs issued at their own brandings, all while teaching the next generation how to fill their boots when they're gone.

Doug and Nora Westman head this branch of the Westman farm, sharing the operation with their two sons, Kyle and Jason, and their wives, Cheryl and Lindsey.

Walker is Kyle's son and must shadow adults years before holding castrating scissors himself. "There's a lot of work to be done in two days," Kyle says, "and we can't do it by ourselves."

This branding begins on a Friday morning. Nora Westman is up at 5 a.m.; the coffee is on in the shop by 6 a.m. Friends and family in cowboy boots and spurs saddle up horses first thing. The gang has a day-and-a-half worth of work to do before the branding irons are smoking and Walker's bucket duties begin.

Brands are proof of ownership, and the practice dates back to ancient Egypt. Each brand is a unique combination of government-approved symbols, numbers and letters, arranged in government-approved ways and placed on government-approved parts of animals.

Pearcy Neale and Samuel Steele of Fort Macleod claimed Alberta's first brand - 71on the left rib - on Jan.

18, 1880. Now, there are 53,688 brands in Alberta's Livestock Identification Services Ltd.'s registry. "It is legal claim to the animal," says Joe Stookey, professor emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan's Western College of Veterinary Medicine.

This branch of the Westman clan sears the right rib of their cattle with three letters: WDW. It is a tribute to Walden Douglas Westman, Kyle and Jason's grandfather. (It also happens to be five-year-old Walker's initials: His middle name is Douglas, too.)

Cattle rustling is real and brands are comparable to vehicle-identification numbers for police who work the livestock beat and inspectors at auction markets who look out for trafficked animals. Brands are also useful under friendly circumstances. Some producers share pastures and need a way to determine who owns what. Cattle stray, too, and brands make reunification with owners possible.

Seared hides are also about marketing: Alberta's most recognizable livestock brand belongs to the Calgary Stampede. It is a C on top of an S, with the S rotated a quarter turn, as if it has fallen over and is napping. In branding-speak, it reads "C over lazy S." The fancy restaurant (and box seats) overlooking the chuckwagon track and rodeo ring on the Stampede grounds is called The Lazy S.

Alternatives to branding fall short. Determined thieves can remove ear tags and RFID (radio-frequency identification) buttons. Microchips can be cut out, or shift under an animal's hide.

Most important, brands can be spotted from a distance, no technology required. Helpful neighbours can solve crimes on their way to the coffee shop.

And although branding hurts animals, folks are increasingly using the painkiller meloxicam - already administered during dehorning and castrating - to mitigate the pain, Dr. Stookey says.

That may hurt farmers' bottom lines, but some see it as a fair trade.

Fourteen horses and riders - six of them women - gather at a pasture two klicks from the Westmans' main yard. The group listens to Kyle and Doug explain the nooks and crannies of the pasture. There are 160 cowcalf pairs here, with another 255 pairs in other pastures.

They are Simmentals, mostly coloured dark cinnamon with splashes of white.

"Okay," Doug says. "Head'r out."

The pasture is dry, the brush short, the hills gentle.

There are gopher holes, cow patties, cattle paths. The roundup crew moves slowly; quick movements spook cattle. Most of the animals are eating at a trough near the centre of the pasture. The crew spreads out to surround the herd, while still giving the cattle plenty of space. Some riders chase stray cows and calves, guiding them to the larger gang.

When the cattle are clustered, the riders flanking the edges of the mooing blob walk toward them. Pushing cattle exploits the mob mentality that governs herds.

Calves bunny hop to try to keep up. The crew drives the herd out of the pasture, down a gravel road, across Secondary Highway 619, into a stubble field adjacent to the Westmans' yard.

Rowdiness is about to replace serenity.

The cattle from the pastures are thick in a holding pen.

Their collective mooing sounds like an army of bagpipers playing out of tune. Each has an ear tag with a letter representing the year it was born and a number unique to its maternal lineage.

In the holding pen, crew on horseback move about the herd, isolating animals from the pack. They call out the letter and number of a separated animal, search for its corresponding family member and guide them through a gate into the next pen - all while keeping the rest of the herd at bay.

They are sorted as cow-calf pairs because the young ones are still nursing. Kyle quickly evaluates the quality of each pair when they are in this second pen to determine their next destination in the maze of corrals.

There are eight options. The best go to a pen the Westmans call "the alley"; the injured, to one next to the calving barn; others to numbered pens. As each pair goes through the beauty-pageant pen, another team - horseback riders and foot soldiers - guides them into Kyle's pen of choice, where the cattle will spend the night. Lindsey records their ear-tag ID and pen number in a green notebook.

Logan Hunter, a Westman relative, is working traffic control in this pen. He's drinking a Twisted Tea while riding Slick, his three-year-old buckskin horse. Mr. Hunter stretches, leaning back with his feet out of the stirrups.

Slick jolts forward, bucking him off. The cowboy lands on his right side, claims he's okay, and favours his right arm for the rest of the day.

Slick bucks him off once more before the horse gets benched.

The Westmans serve meals as both fuel for the crew during the day and as a thank you. They dish up macaroni salad, burgers, pickled beets, lasagna, fresh veggies and more. Cans of Bud Light, Twisted Teas and other boozy beverages are on ice in two coolers. There's a table covered with bottles of hard liquor and fixings, such as Tabasco sauce.

About 50 people gather for lunch on the second day.

The mealtime population peaks in the evening when even friends and family who didn't get their hands dirty swing by to visit.

"Fellowship. Friendship. Stress relief," is how Kyle describes it.

It is Day 2. The horses are saddled. The crew has expanded; most are inside a fenced ring that will soon make a beehive look sedate. Today will see the actual branding.

A gang in the sorting pens separates the young ones from their mothers and sends them to the branding ring in batches ranging in number from 17 to 115, where five, six, maybe seven people on horseback toss lassos at the animals' hind legs.

When a horse and rider secure a calf's hind legs, they drag it to one of four stations in the middle of the ring, where the ground crew hustles from calf to calf, performing assigned tasks: catching calves' heads in the metal devices as they are dragged up to the stations.

Needles. Nasal sprays. Piercings. Sniping. Irons. Releasing the head device.

If it goes well in the station, a calf will be free in about a minute.

A propane torch heats the irons in the branding pot, which looks like a rusty muffler crossed with a barbecue. It sounds like the Snowbirds flying overhead.

Smoke rises as irons are pressed against hides. Some calves appear calm. Most show varying degrees of distress - squirming, squawking, eyes widening. Extra crew jump in to hold down calves that fight back hard.

Ideally, the branding ring looks like a factory with four conveyor belts: the stations always full, the ground crew in constant motion, horseback riders dragging calves up to a station the moment it is empty.

It is a nice theory, but that's about it.

Keep your head up: Horses have the right of way.

Freed calves scamper around. Don't trip on the ropes behind the horses as you move from station to station, when you need to refill your syringe, when you reheat an iron, when you drop what you're doing because a calf is headed in the wrong direction or one needs to be wrestled to the ground. Watch out for young apprentices.

And if the animal is a bull calf, make room for Walker Westman to scamper in.

Associated Graphic

Riders rope calves for branding near Vermilion, Alta. Branding days are part of Prairie culture, times when people all pitch in, families come together and communities mix work with play.


Top: The riders spread out to begin driving cattle to the corral. Above: Doug Westman, centre, who explains to riders in advance what the pasture's terrain is like, directs the riding crew to round up the cattle in the fields.


Far left to right: Lindsey Westman directs cattle as they are sorted into pens before branding. Kyle Westman counts the cattle in his book and a cow stands with its ear tagged for identification and sorting. Right: Kyle, second from left, stands beside his father, Doug Westman, as they prepare neighbours who volunteered to take part in the branding.

Brands are proof of ownership and the practice dates back to ancient Egypt. Each brand is a unique combination of government-approved symbols, numbers and letters, arranged in government-approved ways and placed on government-approved parts of animals.

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