On a sun-soaked day in mid-April, the Hammonds corralled the cattle back into the paddock behind the old barn.
The nursing mothers were separated from their spring calves, just as they had been in the fall, and then locked into neighboring pens for the night. Rick said it was probably eleven o’clock before the cows settled down and stopped mooing, slipping into sleep in the darkness, but they were up again before dawn, calling to their calves. By mid-morning, when the veterinarian arrived, the cows were noisy and rattling the gates of the corral. The sun was pale-bright again, washing everything into pastel hues, thin wisps of high cirrus clouds the only interruptions on the cornflower sky. The pristine clarity and spring-like promise in the air, even touched as it was with the last of winter’s chill, seemed strangely at odds with the task ahead.
It was branding day, one of Meghan’s least-favorite parts of the whole farm year, and she was feeling short-tempered and stand-offish. She wore a down vest over her sweatshirt and a loose-knit stocking cap, with her long hair swept to one side. When her temper flared, she would rip off the cap and tuck it impatiently into her back pocket, then pull it back over her ears when her mood cooled. Everything about the day seemed to be getting on Meghan’s nerves. She didn’t like how stressed the calves were: mewling and skittish, huddling together, face-in, in the corner of their pen. Seeing how jittery and strained they already were, she was pissed that Dave was using an electric prod to hustle some of the calves down the chute, and she was surly about the very idea of hot- branding. “It is hard on the animal,” Rick conceded, “but they bounce right back.” Meghan just didn’t see any good reason for it. In an era when consumers are concerned about animal welfare, she worried it was a potential deal-breaker with boutique buyers.
More than that, it was unnecessary work, considering that there are more modern and pain-free methods of keeping track of individual animals. The cattle already had ear tabs to identify them within the herd. Those cheap plastic tags were hand-numbered by Kyle and catalogued with corresponding health information in Meghan’s record books, an old-fashioned way of keeping inventory of the herd that required her to mark down information on the animals one by one. When the first calf lurched into the cradle, the trap closing around it with a hollow clang, Meghan yelled out, “What’s the number?” Her older brother Jesse, back in town for the time being and charged with applying the brand, called back, “That’s one-twenty-two.” She echoed, “One-two-two,” entering the number into her spiral notebook. Then she wheeled away as Jesse lifted the brander.
If, instead, the Hammonds used electronic identification (EID) ear tags, which have a fifteen-digit visual label specific to each individual and also contain a chip that can be read by an EID reader, then there would be no need to brand the cattle at all. The high-tech tags would make it easier to monitor animals both within the herd and to track down strays in the event of an escape. When we talked about it later, Rick allowed that EID tags would work fine for maverick calves or cows that wander off when an electric fence shorts out, but those ear tags are easily removed by anyone whose intention is theft. “You don’t want your herd to cross the fence, and EID won’t cure that,” he said. “Especially if someone rustles them.”
The idea of modern-day rustling sounds incredible, but with the price of cattle reaching record highs, worries about calf thefts had ranchers on edge from Texas to the Dakotas. The Nebraska Brand Committee, tasked with overseeing cattle brand registrations and enforcement over the western two-thirds of the state, reported that it had recovered more than 1,500 lost or rustled cattle between summer 2013 and 2015, at a total value of more than $5 million. Only a few weeks before the Hammonds starting their branding, three Omaha men had been arrested in connection with a series of at least seventeen thefts from feedlots and farms from western Iowa to Lincoln.
While that case was unusual in its daring, it was hardly isolated. The newspapers had been crowded with rustling stories, often simple crimes of impulse or opportunity, a weak moment when an unbranded weaned calf was spotted alone near a fence line or had strayed off property. But other incidents were clearly more planned out. Some law enforcement officials said that the crime wave was fueled by the meth epidemic—a strange confluence of rising rural addiction and soaring sale barn values for cattle. When a calf can go for over a thousand dollars, Rick explained, the temptation is too great and the risk of loss too severe to let yourself feel squeamish about the prospect of branding. There’s a reason for the old saying: “Trust everyone, but brand your damn cattle.”
So one by one, Rick used the herding paddles to guide the young males down the chute. As each calf was clamped into the cradle and swiveled onto its side, the vet swiftly administered a series of inoculations, and Jesse pressed the electric brand, a large R Diamond, into its right flank. Jesse cut an unlikely figure for the job. His long curly hair was bunched into a ponytail and tucked through the hole at the back of his camouflage Pioneer baseball cap. He wore a bright red Vermont t-shirt that read Jeezum Crow and white wraparound ski sunglasses to shield his eyes. Each time he applied the brand, thick billows of white smoke instantly engulfed him, and the air filled with the smell of burning hair and cauterized flesh. The calves usually let out a single, low moo then dropped silent. Right after, Kyle would slice into the calf’s scrotum, cut out its testicles, and toss them aside into the dirt. Later, after the task was complete, I asked Kyle if the branding and castrating bothered him at all or if he just regarded it as a necessary task. “I really don’t think the branding hurts them too much,” Kyle said. “I mean, it burns, but then it cauterizes the wound immediately.” He said that they do freeze brands with identification numbers on the flanks of the cows when they get bigger, using a brand dipped in liquid nitrogen.
The cold cauterization creates a white brand that stands out against the black hide of the Angus cattle, making it possible to pick out specific cows even at night or if they lose their ear tags. “They complain about that more than the hot brand,” Kyle said. “And the castration—well, I can’t imagine that it feels too good, but I just try to be quick about it. Some people use a bander that applies a tight plastic band at the base of the scrotum, so that everything just drops off after a few days of the blood not circulating. I don’t know if that’s more humane—some people think so. For us, we think it’s better to just cut them, so it’s quick and clean, and if we get them out onto grass right afterward, there’s pretty much no chance of infection.”
After another hour of branding and cutting, Rick stretched his arms over the rails of the corral, letting his gloved hands dangle loose as he caught his breath from chasing calves into the chute. “You know, everybody worries about the branding,” he said, “but if I had to choose between being branded and being castrated . . .” He ducked his head, so he had me clearly in his sights. “Well, which would you choose?” As he chuckled to himself, Jesse called out the new calf’s tag number. Meghan marked it down and then stomped off without a word. She pulled off her yellow stocking cap and crammed it in her back pocket, dangling like a penalty flag.
Later, she explained that Rick had gone to the trouble to move away from hormones and antibiotics used by other ranchers to bulk up their animals, putting the family in a position to charge a premium for their beef, but hot-branding is strictly prohibited if you want to get the top dollar that goes along with Animal Welfare Approved certification. Because many small producers in Nebraska were applying for that label—as well as organic, non-GMO, kosher, and other specialty labels—the Hammonds struggled to sell their beef directly to consumers looking to buy from independent farmers. So most of their cattle, despite being grass-fed, hormone-free, and antibiotic-free, wound up at the sale barn with everyone else’s cattle, often to be purchased by Cargill or Tyson or some feedlot that fattens its cattle on corn and growth promoters to sell to those packers. At auction, Rick could command a small premium because his cattle were designated as NI—no implants—but that higher price would be offered only because the buyer knew those cattle would respond to hormones and bulk up faster when they were injected in the feedlot. To Meghan’s mind, it was a lot of extra work for the Hammonds, keeping their herd healthy and drug-free, only to have their cattle wind up just like all the other cattle out there.
Rick saw hot-branding in just the opposite light. Not only does it protect your herd from rustling, but when you go to the sale barn, the brand on your cattle becomes your brand as a company. In the western part of Nebraska, brands, checked and approved by government inspectors, are required to sell all cattle; in the eastern part of the state, they’re not required or checked, so it’s not at all unusual to see unbranded cattle. Rick told me that his cattle, with their distinctive brands burned into their rumps, sent a message to sale barn buyers that his cows had been raised in a traditional way, spending half their lives on open rangelands in western Nebraska. And he didn’t deny that the practice made him feel connected to a time when cattle grazed over broad expanses on the unfenced prairie and had to be branded with irons reddened in the coals of a campfire just to assure that professional marauders didn’t make off with a rancher’s livelihood. “It’s the cowboy mystique,” Rick said unapologetically, and he said that he considered that way of raising cattle part of the R Diamond identity. As each brand was set, Jesse rotated the cradle back to vertical and released the trap with a foot-operated pedal, letting the calf leap out into a holding pen with the others. When all the new calves had finally been inoculated, branded, and castrated, we all sat on overturned buckets in the narrow shade of the barn, eating sandwiches and drinking sodas. Meghan explained that they expected to have maybe 130 calves. Fifty would go out to pasture for the summer near Valentine, in the northwest corner of the state, and the other 80, split up into two separate trailer loads, would go out to Rick’s land around Curtis. The calves they had branded and castrated that day were ready for pasture now. Soon they would be loaded up for western Nebraska.
“And they’re all new calves—from this year?” I asked. “Yeah, they’re only two months old by the time they go,” Meghan said.
I studied her a moment, trying to gauge her patience. She had finally ditched her stocking cap for good as the day grew warmer, and the bustle and unease of branding seemed to be draining out of her.
“You know,” I ventured, “from my perspective, the branding and all, it seemed like it went—”
“It was good,” Meghan interjected. She leaned over and slugged me in the shoulder, as if to signal that the subject was closed. “It’s hard on the calves, and it’s hard on the people,” she said. “But, yeah, otherwise, it was good.”
Excerpted from This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm by Ted Genoways. Copyright @ 2017 by Ted Genoways. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.