A visitor to this annual ritual discovers an event that's part rodeo, part banquet, and part social get-together
THE dirt is flying. The irons are hot. The calves are bawling and kicking. And Tom Fiest, a 74-year-old Canadian cowboy who began tending cattle and mending fences when he was 14, is having a great time.
Four cowboys on horseback, including Mr. Fiest, are working a herd of several hundred calves at a spring branding one Saturday on the Hays Ranch, south of Calgary.
The riders are the key players at this time-honored community event of mud, mooing, smoke, and good food that brings more than 30 neighbors and their children together to help.
Among them, Fiest is the most experienced, gracefully lassoing, then pulling or dragging one calf after another to the wrasslers. After his best horse is exhausted, he switches to another he brought just in case. The key to being a good cowboy, Fiest later volunteers with typical cowboy modesty, is a good horse.
``You used to get a good horse for $125 [Canadian] back in the '50s,'' he muses (the equivalent of US$90). ``Now you can't find one for $3,500, and everyone wants one.''
Even calves like these - one to three months old, and weighing about 160 pounds - are strong enough to injure a man with one kick. The wrasslers do what their name implies: wrestle the calves to the ground. One wrassler grabs the taut rope between rider and calf, another grabs the tail of the calf and pulls it off balance.
Two burly cowhands hold each animal at head and tail so it won't hurt itself or others during a pit-stop-fast process. After dehorning and castrating male calves in a nearly bloodless process, cowboys apply branding irons heated to a glowing red in a propane flame to each calf's haunch for a few seconds.
The branders carefully time the branding: too long, and it may burn through the thick hide; too short, and it may only singe the hair, and the brand will not be permanent. A youngster sprays a cool solution on the brand just before the calf hops up and lopes back to the herd.
The entire process for each calf takes a minute, perhaps two. In 2-1/2 hours, Fiest and the others have roped and branded all 460 calves, which are then reunited with their mothers.
Some animal-rights critics decry the practice of roping and branding, saying those methods are inhumane and outmoded.
``It doesn't matter what you say to some of these people, they still won't understand,'' says Larry Dayment, a young rancher who is helping out at his sixth branding this year. ``But I can tell you we're not in the business of hurting these animals. This is the quickest, most humane way we know to get the job done.''
Andy Entz, a Hutterite dressed in traditional black, agrees that roping calves is the best way, even though his communal farm seven miles from here uses the alternative method of running calves through a narrow chute. The calves are trapped between the walls of the chute that act like a vise for branding.
``We use a chute, but that's only because we don't have the experience with roping that these guys do,'' Mr. Entz says. ``It takes us almost two days, and it really isn't good for the calves to be away so long from their mothers.''
Other than animal-rights activism, there is not much to seriously challenge the powerful multibillion-dollar Canadian cattle industry, which, along with oil and gas, is one of Alberta's two key industries.
The cattle business has been strong for the last few years, ranchers say, and Canada is now a net exporter of beef to the United States. Ranches here are smaller than they were 50 years ago, but they are more productive. Smaller ranches have meant less need for full-time cowboys, and few ranch hands with Fiest's experience are still active.
With the branding done, Dayment, Entz, Fiest, and the rest settle down to a home-cooked backyard banquet of turkey, stuffing, and lemon-meringue pie.
The half-dozen or so brandings that ranchers and cowboys attend annually may be the only time they see one another all year, as they live miles from one another. Fifty years ago, Fiest says, brandings were an even more important social occasion because of the solitary lives cowboys led.
``It was pretty lonesome,'' he says. ``Guys would play cards a lot. But the horses were sure good back then.''
Will he ever stop being a cowboy and retire?
``I don't think so,'' he says. ``I guess it's in my blood. Once you're out here, you never go back.''