Saturday, June 25, 2011

Branding the Community

Editor’s Note: This post vividly captures essential aspects of cattle ranching community life -- most specifically, branding this livestock and the social networking that this task entails.  However, animal activists, vegans and vegetarians, as well as pet owners with a conflicted conscience about whether or not to eat animal meat, may not be comfortable with some of the photographs. 

Posted by Betty Spackman, BENTON, SASKATCHEWAN, CANADA -- My niece married a rancher.  During one of my research trip this past month I was able to visit and observe a ‘cattle branding’.  I had already come to realize through their many stories, that these events are not just a necessary part of the job of owning cattle, but essential to building community for all those involved. The branding part is about keeping track of valuable livestock. In open ranges grazing cattle can disappear for several weeks, intermixing with other ranchers’ livestock. Branding helps ranchers sort out who owns which cattle. Typically branding is done when the calf is two-to-three months old. The community aspect has a similar function in that ranchers within vast amounts of land get to know each other…and their cattle. This was my chance to the experience the entire process first hand.

Men and women from city desks, as well as cowhands from various ranches – all volunteers – met at the site to spend however long it took to get the job done.  It would be a weekend of trailer and motor home living, set up in the middle of an immense, open, prairie landscape. Cow brandings are some of the most important social events of the year for these folks, and I could see that they were carrying on a tradition of pioneer neighborliness that my grandparents who homesteaded the land a century ago would recognize – except for the trucks, iPods, portable flush toilets, and gas BBQ grills, of course.  And in a couple of weeks the same thing would be repeated at another site, on another ranch, and those who could, would gather again. 

After some hours in the morning bringing in the horses and rounding up the cows with their calves from about 14 quarter sections of land, the volunteers took up their posts with very little coaching. They worked hard into the evening to process about 150 animals – branding, castrating, and inoculating them. At this event the rancher’s wife did most of the castrating. She was helped by ropers hauling the animals in, crews of three or four handling them, and others branding and giving the shots. After a few minutes of pain the bawling ‘patients’ were ready to be released. Upon release they rushed off to return to their regular grazing routine. The branding takes all but three seconds; castration and shots another several minutes.

To people unfamiliar with life as a rancher the process may seem very cruel, as well as a stark remainder of the calves’ eventual fates. But it is a fundamental part of the business, and all involved make every effort to ensure that the process is as painless as possible for the animals. If you watch them off grazing with their mothers after ‘the event’ it is difficult to see any lasting effect.

The older members of the community made meals, kept the beer cold, and watched the children. I was the city slicker aunt who was welcomed and offered what would be considered the privilege of helping (had I known what to do).  Instead I took pictures.  It is part of my visual research about the various types of relationships humans have with animals, and was a rare treat to observe this practical and giving social networking that built far more than a strong herd of cattle.  I know there is much interest in urban settings to understand multicultural human behavior.  In my current work as an artist and writer I am more interested in the collision of human and non-human animals, whether it is on a farm, in a factory, or on the living room furniture, and how those interactions play a part in re/forming cultural idea/ls. 

Betty Spackman, MFA, is a multi media installation artist and painter who has exhibited internationally, and taught Studio Art at various Universities in Canada and the United States for 15 years. Her work most often focuses on cultural objects and the stories connected to them. She is author of  A Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch. She is currently working on a 3000 sq. ft. installation entitled:  “FOUND WANTING, a Multimedia Installation Regarding Grief and Gratitude.”  This project is built around a large collection of animal bones and addresses, among other things, issues of sustainability and animal/human relations. She can be contacted at

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