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A calf bawls during a branding on a 100 year-old ranch near Cremona, Alta., Friday, June 1, 2012. Over 300 calves were branded and will head out to summer pastures. Branding time is a western tradition and brings together friends, neighbors and families for a day of work with a large barbecue dinner afterwards.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

To enjoy a branding day – the work, the smells, the spectacle – it may not be necessary to have been raised to it, but it helps. I get an old excitement when I see ropers letting out their long loops, walking the horse slowly into the calf herd and coming out just as slowly with a calf dragging.

Teams of two (usually sturdy, younger folk) hold the calves for the brander, the dehorn er and, if necessary, the castrater. The smoke rises, the calf bellers. If the hair catches fire, someone brushes it out with a gloved hand. The calf wobbles away, shaking its head and sorrowful. The work goes on from early morning until evening. On big outfits with big crews, it is possible to do a thousand calves a day.

I understand that what I have just described is a horror show to some: a profound reason to be vegetarian. I will not quarrel with that. What a person eats is the most fundamental of choices. But I would ask people to believe that cattlemen tend to be, if not softhearted, then fiercely protective of their animals. I was a sentimental farm kid, concerned about calves on branding day, yet there I was, holding their back legs or kneeling on their shoulders, inches away from where the damage was done. Trust me, you feel their pain from that vantage, as much as one can. But I need to make clear that I also loved branding day: the hard communal labour, the sense of achievement, the festive glory.

The use of hot irons to burn in the brand in a calf's hide has long been controversial and probably the best question, from an ethical perspective, is why ranchers don't turn instead to non-painful methods to identify livestock. There is now, for example, a method of freezing the brand on, such that the hair will grow white in that design. But when the hair gets long, it makes an indistinct brand that is hard to read.

In 2005, because of export issues due to mad-cow disease, the federal government made it mandatory that all Canadian cattle moving from their place of origin have ear tags with a unique number that shows the animal's age and place of birth. The approved method has a chip that can be read electronically. But on the day they install the ear tags, many ranchers continue to use the hot brand as well.

"If a calf gets into the neighbours' property, they can't see whose it is," says rancher Dave Lowe, explaining that they would have to catch the calf and report its number to a federal office. "We still need to see a brand for a quick ID."

However, for many ranchers, it's not so much about efficiency as what they have always done; what looks and feels right. I can remember when an affordable, practical version of the calf cradle came along in the 1960s (a metal affair that would squeeze and flip a calf, with a hinged door through which to apply the brand). We bought one and, after a couple of years, rejected it. I noticed most ranchers did. The usual excuse for hiding the calf cradles in the windbreak was that they caused more injuries than rope catching and handholding. But the fact was that the cradle changed the aesthetic and, thus, the tradition of branding.

I have heard urbanites express disgust at the practice, viewing it as a ghastly, archaic rite. Some critics would feel better if a vet did it in antiseptic conditions, the way Fido and Princess are "neutered." Personally, I think it is good that ranchers do this harsh work themselves: feel themselves inflict the pain. It is less hypocritical than putting the suffering involved in our use of animals behind a veterinarian's door and pretending we aren't connected to it.

I've never believed that being a pet is the ultimate fulfillment of an animal's life. If you turn a few horses loose, they turn into wild horses, resurrecting their herd instincts. I have seen normal dogs take off from their farm homes, group up and turn into killing machines overnight. Whether we're ranchers, horse people or dog walkers, we are imposing on these animals; we might as well admit it.

If the purpose of cattle branding were only about tradition and not practical at all, I would have to be against it. But that time is not here yet. In the interim, I shall continue to respect it as necessary work and to enjoy it as a cultural expression as valid as any, and more so than some. We owe it to animals to treat them well, and I trust ranchers, people who work with cattle every day, to tell me when branding's day is done.


Branding, dehorning, castrating and vaccination against disease are done on the same day (or days) when cattle are gathered and a work crew assembled.

Here is what each involves.

Branding: permanently marking cattle as a way of recognizing them, to prove ownership, and as a defense against cattle theft. The usual method in Alberta is to place the brand on the animal's hide with a hot iron.

Dehorning: removing a calf's horns to avoid having them injure one another or the people who handle them. The most common methods are to burn out the horn cores with a hot iron or to cut them out with a curved knife.

Castrating: removing the testicles from young male calves. Only a small percentage of male calves are allowed to become breeding bulls (usually purebreds) to improve the quality of offspring.

Fred Stenson is the author of The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo . This month, he became the eighth recipient of the Writers' Guild of Alberta's lifetime achievement award: The Golden Pen. He lives in Cochrane.

Calgarian George Webber has been photographing the people and landscape of the west for more than 30 years. His next book, Prairie Gothic , will be published this fall.