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Spring Branding on a Texas Ranch

The Work Begins!

Every spring throughout ranch country, cowboys and cowgirls gather the cow/calf operation herds for branding.


The day work crew heads out at sunrise to push the herd to a branding pen. Texas Panhandle. Pic by N. Bright.

Some people claim that branding of livestock is a cruel practice, but it is necessary to establish ownership. The practice was introduced to North America by Cortes when he landed at Veracruz in 1519 with a few head of Andalusian cattle. He branded Three Christian Crosses on the hip of his small herd.

Today, the only thing separating our calves from the neighbor’s herd is a few strands of barbed wire, and they do find ways to get lost on the other side. Bulls tend to have of mind of their own, and so do cattle rustlers. Sometimes fences and pad-locked gates aren’t enough. The new beef crop is too valuable. Branding is still the most humane way to identify the livestock that graze on the expansive  grasses of the American grasslands.

In Texas brands are registered with the county clerk of the county where the livestock are kept. The Sanford Ranch is a member of The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, which recovers an average of $5 million in stolen cattle and assets for ranchers annually. Their special Rangers are licensed peace officers commissioned through the Texas Department of Public Safety or the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.

If You Climb into the Saddle be Ready for the Ride

The cookhouse crew are awake before anybody, and breakfast is served before sun up. Riders are in the saddle by morning’s first light. Beginning at the far corners, cows are driven to a central location, and then proceed as one herd to a set of pipe rail pens. We have working pens placed strategically throughout the ranch as a fenced pasture of grassland can be several sections in size (a section of land is 640 acres).

Branding Irons heating in the propane fueled fire. Pic by N. Bright


At the pens, the babies are ‘stripped’ from the cows, meaning they are separated from their mother.  One cowboy and a good cutting horse works the gate. Babies are kept back while the mothers are allowed through. As the babies gather in one end of a separate pen from their mothers, two ropers ease into the bunch and the real work begins.

New additions to the herd must be branded and vaccinated against black leg. At the Sanford we use ear tags as participants in the Where Food Comes From hormone free, age-verified program, with color codes for boy or girl. Bulls become steers. Our crew is capable of working one calf every few minutes. The iron is super hot and a cow’s hide is thick and tough. There’s so much going on at one time, I think the babies are more upset about being apart from their mother than anything. In the midst of  the noise from bawling calves and answered calls from their mommas, ground crews are amazingly fast and efficient to minimize the stress on the calf.

A color coded ear tag makes it easier to separate out the steers for fall shipment. My husband can walk through a pen of only heifers to decide which ones he wants to keep.


Shannon coils his rope and prepares to rope another calf and drag him to branding fire. Photo by N. Bright


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AHQA – the American Quarter Horse. This is Dooley. Pic by N. Bright.


The Working Pen


Lauren brings another calf to the branding fire as the flankers watch and get ready.

Rope and Drag

For centuries rope-and-drag, which is the process we use, was practiced in the open pasture before barbed wire and pens. A roper on a horse ropes the back two legs of the calf and drags him closer to the branding irons.


Everybody has a job to do and they are fast. Pic by N. Bright


After a calf is roped and pulled closer to the branding fire, two flankers work together, one on the rope and one on the tail, to flip the calf on it’s side. The rope is removed and the flankers hold the calf still. One places a knee on his neck and holds the top foreleg, while another braces his foot against the hind leg and stretches the top hind leg. Flanking is all about timing between the two rastlers. The description seems long, but the actual task takes only a few seconds. The calf is flipped on his side before he even knows what’s happening. It really is amazing how fast the crew can work a hundred head in no time.

Two groups of workers stand on either side of the branding pot. Everyone is assigned a job; administer vaccine, fill shot needles, ear tags, rope, or flank. Everything is going on at once and the little calf is literally on the ground for only a few minutes. Overseeing the entire chaos is our ranch foreman and the boss, my husband. I appreciate the skills of our crew and how they look out for each other. I have heard on occasion, “Watch out, Natalie!”  The spot behind the camera lens doesn’t always give me the overall perspective of what’s happening in back.

Two flankers; one has the head and one has the heal as they wait for shot needles to be filled.

Back to the Pasture

After every new calf is processed, Mommas are allowed to find their babies, and then everybody is paired back up and calm again, the drive begins back to their pasture. Interestingly enough, they know the way and are usually anxious to get back  their home. Day workers, neighbors, and friends gather back at the cookhouse for lunch. Work is done before the heat of the day and it begins again at sun up the next day.


Wide open spaces are good for the heart.

All pictures by N. Bright. Sanford Ranch, Texas Panhandle.

Natalie Bright is an author, blogger, speaker and aspiring photographer. KEEP ‘EM FULL AND KEEP ‘EM ROLLIN’ is filled with the history of the cattle drives, over 100 authentic cow camp recipes, archival photos, and modern day cowboys at work. Her stories and articles have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies, and she is the author of the TROUBLE IN TEXAS Series, adventure books for kids set in the Texas frontier, Ages 8-10. She also has a series of easy readers based on true stories about rescue horses. 


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