Cattle branding on the Prairies has always been a combination of necessity and tradition. The sound of cows bawling, the smell of burning hair, the sight of rope-wielding cowboys, the taste of the baked beans and beef at lunch — this sensory feast is part of the traditional western branding party.
This year it will be different.
Efforts and restrictions designed to limit the spread of COVID-19 will eliminate the large gatherings organized on some ranches this spring to brand, vaccinate and castrate calves.
“We’ll be very strategic about it. We need two or three extra people for us to pull it off, so that’s not a lot. That’s not like some brandings where they’re used to having a dozen people show up to help out,” said Doug Wray, who ranches near Irricana, Alta.
“This time around it will be quite different. It won’t be a social event anymore, will it? It will be a get ’er done, stay safe kind of thing. The last thing you want to do is bring somebody into your place that’s carrying it and knock your own operation down.”
The spring gathering is not entirely about branding, which is a nearly foolproof way of identifying cattle throughout their lives. Calves are often vaccinated at time of branding and the bull calves are castrated. Dehorning and administering implants can also be part of it.
At the Antelope Butte ranch north of Lundbreck, Alta., Jim Lynch-Staunton is pondering a few alternatives to the large event held at the ranch each spring.
“We’re trying to figure that out. We’re investigating the idea of not branding. We’re also looking at the idea of, because we’ve got ‘captive children,’ just cutting it down to small brandings, 100-head brandings we can do in-house with our own crew. That’s kind of the way we’re looking at it right now.”
Lynch-Staunton said he doesn’t consider branding itself to be essential to animal identification, though he admits it seems to be a bigger issue for the older generation of ranchers.
But like many ranches, his family employs a two-tag system: the required Canadian Cattle Identification Agency tag and another for their own records.
“It is an issue but most of our cattle run where we have a pretty good eye on them. They’re not mixed with any other cattle… Once they’re weaned they go into our own home feedlot so we think we have reasonable control over them as well.”
However, lack of spring calf vaccination and particularly the opportunity to castrate calves while young are potential drawbacks to forgoing the usual spring event. Research shows castrating bulls later in life, even by a few months, is more stressful on the animals and has a greater impact on their recovery time. Vaccination in spring provides protection against a number of illnesses but also improves response to fall vaccinations to better protect cattle, according to research data.
At Spring Hill Cattle Co. near Nanton, Alta., Bob Koch is several weeks away from branding, having just calved out about 400 of the 550 cows giving birth this spring.
However, he has given some thought to managing the branding, vaccinating and castrating process when the time comes.
“We’ve been spit-balling some ideas,” he said. “We have talked about speaking with whatever local (health) authorities to get a go ahead on having a few extra people around. And we had actually talked about not branding but still trying to figure out a way to run everything through and at least get them castrated and get them vaccinated. If we have to skip branding just to save time, then we’ll do that.”
Koch said it’s not uncommon to have 35 to 40 people help out at branding but health authority restrictions on groups larger than 15 will put an end to that.
A big group of friends and neighbours can ensure branding is done in a single day. Now it looks like smaller batches of calves, handled by fewer people, will have to suffice and in the case of larger ranches, that’s going to take several days and potentially more sorting and handling.
Also lost will be the social aspect of branding. After a long winter and a hectic spring calving season, the event is often a time to reconnect.
“It’s relaxing to visit with everybody and have a few beers and talk about calving season,” said Koch. ”Our kids absolutely love branding season. … For them it’s a blast. They all go tear around and do kid stuff together.”
However, the organization involved in a large branding won’t be missed by those who host them, despite the welcome help a group provides.
“I love branding season. I hate branding day at home,” said Koch. ”I don’t know anybody that enjoys their own branding.”
“I know it’s a lot more fun to go to my neighbour’s branding than it is to go to mine,” he said.
“I will miss the social gathering to some degree and I think our crew really will. But for me, for owners, branding is a very stressful event too. Organizing people, organizing food, getting everything together… and then doing a good job with respect to getting the things that are important, the castration, the vaccinations, done properly, while not hurting any animals and not hurting any people.”
Also lost will be the opportunity to show urban dwellers an important aspect of cattle production. The Lynch-Stauntons typically have many city dwellers at their branding to help out and share in a meal.
“We invite a lot of our friends from the city and I think that’s just about as important as well, that we present what we do to people from the city.
“With the huge disconnect that we have between people and where their food comes from, the branding gives our personal ranch an opportunity to showcase what we do, where we are and why we do it.”
Branding in the age of COVID
Spring is the traditional season for branding but many cattle operations will have to make changes this year to comply with health authority regulations requiring personal distancing and limits on group size.
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association has compiled a list of recommendations for those planning to brand calves within the next few months.
- Know the local health guidelines about limiting risk to COVID-19.
- Restrict participation to the crew only.
- Have each crew member sign a log-in.
- Remind the crew about the coronavirus dangers and outline safety measures.
- Remind crew members of the need to alert if not feeling well.
- Ensure crew knows proper hygiene protocol.
- Keep the same people assigned to the same task.
- Frequently clean and disinfect equipment.
- Maintain two-metre distance from other people as much as possible.
- Provide hand sanitizer and encourage frequent use.
- Provide soap, water and single-use towels to the crew.
- Avoid buffet-style serving where utensils are touched by many people.
- Assign people to fill plates for crew members.
- Consider individually wrapped food/drinks prepared off-site.
- Avoid multiple people handling water jugs and food containers.
- Consider staggered mealtimes to reduce crowd size.
- Ensure people eat at least two metres away from each other.
Source: Canadian Cattlemen’s Association