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Cow Camp Etiquette

“There were no skunks in a cow outfit. They were the highest class of men, and they are the ones who saved Texas.”


Plainsman, Texas rancher and trail driver, Charles Goodnight, pushed his first 2,000 head from southwest of Fort Belknap, Texas to Fort Sumner, New Mexico in 1866. “Twos, threes, and up” were sold for eight cents a pound on the foot. The US Government needed beef for the Navajo and Mescalero Indians on the reservation there, who sadly were on the verge of starvation. Oliver Loving continued on with the remainder of the herd to Colorado, while Goodnight made the seven-hundred-mile trip back to Texas to gather another herd for market before winter. With three cowboy companions, Goodnight packed a mule with provisions and about twelve thousand dollars in gold. But that is an adventure for a future blog.

Today’s blog is about etiquette, accepted rules of behavior on the trail. Some of the best practices used by cowboys today were established 150 years ago for “going up the trail”. Here is a list of the traditions of cow camp that haven’t changed.

Charles Goodnight, TSHA Handbook of Texas Online

Spring Branding

Spring time! The busiest time of year for ranch crews. The newest additions to the herd must be branded for identification which is the main purpose of spring branding.

  1. Cow punchers roll out of his bed before daylight. With horse fed and saddled, he or she is ready to ride at first light.
  2. Ranches feed their branding crews. Breakfast is a quiet event, not much socializing goes on. As the old chuck wagon cook would say, “Swaller and git out.”
  3. Eggs, hot biscuits, and sausage gravy; the food is hearty and there’s plenty. Plates and silver ware are left in the “wreck pan”, a tub of soapy water. The cook is acknowledged with a “Thank you.”
  4. Instead of riding across the place where work begins, today cowboys and their horses are hauled to the back pasture. Livestock trailers are assigned and horses are loaded in the predawn hours. Horses and crew are unloaded and mounted, they circle around the boss waiting for instruction.
  5. Riders are split into two groups to sweep the pasture, pushing the herd towards a designated meeting spot which might be a windmill or wire gate located on the opposite side of the pasture. For clarification, our pastures are around three to four or more sections. One section is 640 acres. It takes the crew several hours to gather one pasture.
  6. Just like Charles Goodnight and other trail driving cowboys determined 150 years ago, the best formation used to keep herds moving are the same concepts used today. A point man leads the way to determine the direction and control the speed, and usually a few of the older, bossier cows will fall in place behind him. The rest of the herd follows with cowboys on either side in swing position, towards the front, and then flank towards the back. The drag riders come last riding in a dust cloud, keeping watch on the stragglers.
  7. Once the herd is together, they are driven to a set of branding pens. If a calf is too little to make the drive, he is roped and picked up and hauled in the back of a pickup truck or livestock trailer. Or in one instance the back of my SUV, because I happened to be photographing the drags that day.
  8. Just as Charles Goodnight determined to utilize the way a cow thinks, our guys keep everybody calm and on the move. It’s a noisy affair as the mommas continually call out to their babies and the calves answer.

Watch out for that Horse!

Some rules are unwritten, but those traditions and rules of etiquette continue to be passed down from generation to generation. Here are a few for the branding pen still honored on modern day ranches.

  1. Horses have the right of way.
  2. There’s one boss who will assign you a job.
  3. Stay on the side you’ve been assigned to.
  4. Flankers stay alert and be ready.
  5. If it’s not your turn to flank, stay out of the way.
  6. Don’t cross in front of the calf’s head when he’s on the ground. Sometimes it makes him want to run the wrong direction, back behind the branding pot, when he jumps up.
  7. Be ready ear taggers, shot needles, branding iron handlers; wait until the calf is flanked, and then move in quick and do your job
I never get tired of that big beautiful Texas sky, which was unbelievable on this day. How do you like the color coordinated shirts. Totally unplanned. I’m standing stone still next to a high line pole. For more ranch pics, go to Instagram @natsgrams.

Read about Charles Goodnight, authentic trail food recipes, and more facts about the cattle trailing industry in my newest book, KEEP ‘EM FULL AND KEEP ‘EM ROLLIN’: The All-American Chuck Wagon Cookbook.

For more information about Charles Goodnight, I recommend CHARLES GOODNIGHT: COWMAN AND PLAINSMAN by J. Evetts Haley.

KEEP ‘EM FULL AND KEEP ‘EM ROLLIN’ features over 100 recipes, cattle drive history, archival photos, and her own Texas ranch photography, you can bring a taste of the old West to your kitchen! Available now where ever your favorite books are sold.

Natalie Bright is an author, blogger, speaker. Her new WILD COW RANCH series will be available January 2021, a Christian Western Romance from CKN Christian Publishing. Book #1 MAVERICK HEART. Book #2 WILD COW WINTER. Book #3 FOLLOW A WILD HEART, and three more titled coming this Fall. She is also the author of the Trouble in Texas series for middle grade readers and an easy reader series about rescue horses.