Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945-1982


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Haying, Irrigation, and Branding:
Tradition and Innovation


Branding, like haymaking, was conducted in much the same way throughout the valley. Unlike haymaking, however, it was largely unmechanized. The work involved roping the calves from horseback and dragging them to a position where buckaroos on the ground held the animals and branded them. In addition to branding, the calves were earmarked and medicated, while the male calves were castrated. There were small variations in roping style: some buckaroos simply roped the hind legs, while others paired up to rope the calf's head and heels. Most ranches earmarked the animals in addition to branding, but opinion was divided about whether a third mark was needed, and, if so, whether it should be a wattle or a plastic ear tag. The Ninety-Six used an open, sagebrush fire to heat the irons while others used an electric iron or a propane fire. Squeeze chutes—devices that hold animals while they are treated—were generally reserved for larger animals since they might injure a calf. Loui Cerri used a squeeze chute in 1978 to re-brand some heifers he had just bought. This online collection includes extensive documentation of branding and branding technology in the valley.

Unmechanized branding may have typified northern Nevada in the period 1978-82, but calf tables were in use in many other parts of the West. The calf table stands at the end of a chute. A line of calves move single file down the chute and through a gate where each calf is fastened to the table—a platform on hinges—which is then tilted to the horizontal to permit branding, earmarking, and the other steps in the process. Although calf tables require less labor than horseback branding, this seeming increase in efficiency left Paradise Valley ranchers unmoved. In an interview, Les Stewart argued that the excitement of riding helped motivate workers and that roping was less likely to injure calves than the chute and table.

Rancher Henry Taylor, who had moved to the valley from California in the 1970s, reported that he had also observed this motivational effect. "If we used a calf table," he said, "we couldn't get any help." But when he passed the word that he needed a crew to rope and brand from horseback, he easily attracted twelve to fifteen volunteers. In their spare time, many of these riders participated in semi-formal, head-and-heel roping competitions and enjoyed practicing as they worked. Taylor estimated that fifteen volunteers could process 280 calves in half a day. If he, his two sons, and a hired man had worked a calf table, the 280 calves would have taken a day and a half to process.

Branding had a special place in the life of the valley. A good meal and occasionally a drink accompanied the event. It was social, recreational, and as a form of shared work took its place with the barn-raisings, bean-stringings, and molasses-boilings celebrated in the folklore of the East. Branding symbolized the cowboy for outsiders: no other image is so immediately recognized as a scene of a rider roping a calf or a group of men applying the branding iron. Pictures of brandings are the most requested from the Paradise Valley project's photographic archive. The valley's great affection for horseback branding suggests that the symbol held meaning for insiders as well.