Branding in Montana


You can tell a lot by a person’s hands. Around here, most are rough and worn with dirt, cracks and calluses. They are hands that grip leather reins; clasp nippers, hammers and rasps; hands that carry buckets of chicken scraps; pound fence posts into rocky soil; pull calves; irrigate fields; rock babies to sleep; and cook for families. You see, they’re giving hands, always stretched out in offering to the animals, to the land and to one another. It takes many hands to make a strong community and in rural Montana, that is exactly what you’ll find. Perhaps one of the best demonstrations of this way of life is in the spring, where everyone comes together to lend a hand.

As one rancher’s wife tells it, “Spring is the best; the change of seasons is the change of life on the ranch. The smell of the rain signifies the earth coming to life. The trees are budding, the grass is coming up, the cows are nurturing this year’s crop, and the cycle of life on the ranch has begun.”

If you have experienced a Montana winter, you know they can be long and brutally cold. Add to that the responsibility of your livestock’s well being; fighting against blizzards, wind, and ice; having ample hay so the animals maintain weight and are able to combat the negative temps; and then the ups and downs that come along with calving season. As winter finally fades, spring feels like a sigh of relief and brings a “We made it!” feeling with it. As branding season rolls around, the joy is palpable.

Branding, a spring ritual, is an essential part of raising cattle and a very big job to accomplish. Most brandings start at the crack of dawn. A village of friends, family, ranchers and ranch hands (hired help that tend to livestock) all meet to gather the cattle on horseback. While the cattle get sorted by a few cowboys, everyone else falls into their role. There are ropers, wrestlers, note keepers, branders, and vaccinators. These roles are not just made up of cowboys and cowgirls, but even young kids, pregnant women and older folks. Everyone rotates through the jobs, tagging each other out for breaks as needed. It is often hot, dusty and loud, but the camaraderie makes up for it. As much as it is a task, branding is a celebration of making it through winter and another calving season.

Fred Daggett holds 5-year-old Hadley Hanson as she helps Mark Downing (right) hold down a calf.

Growing up in a town with more cattle than people, I was always excited when friends reached out to ask my family to help out at their brandings. I was 11 or 12 when a rancher first handed me the branding iron and let me brand his cattle; it felt like a really big deal and I remember being nervous I’d place the brand upside down. It meant a lot that he trusted me with such an important role. To this day, brandings are something I look forward to every spring. Being atop a horse, giving my go at throwing a rope, or just getting dirty wrestling calves always leaves me with a feeling of accomplishment and gratitude.

When the hard work is over, the cattle are let out to graze and the crew gathers for food and drinks. I can confirm that the meal that comes after a branding is extremely hard to beat. It’s almost as if each ranch’s branding becomes known for something delicious, and oftentimes you find yourself looking forward to it all year. For example, a few of my favorites: Lisa’s peanut butter monster cookies, Lori’s cinnamon twists, Jennifer’s roast beef sandwiches and baked beans. The family hosting the branding knows that they would not be able to accomplish such work without everyone showing up to help, and with each bite of the homemade meal you can feel the love and appreciation that went into making it.

“My job is the cooking, which I do enjoy,” Lori Kinsey says. “Branders always have good appetites. I like to have fresh cinnamon twists ready before they start because most of them hurry to get their own chores done so they can get to the branding, so they skip breakfast. Last year, I even had hot sausage egg muffin sandwiches ready. The hardest part is knowing when they will be done and ready to eat—because it is never when you think it will be! But I love to watch them and they always enjoy being together, doing what they love.”

Mark Downing (left) and John Hanson (right) hold down a calf while Mark Burke (center) does the branding.
Ry Groshens (left) and Ty Plaggemeyer enjoy well-earned drinks after a long day of branding.

Now at branding, you also get the chance to try the freshest Rocky Mountain oysters you will ever find, hot off the branding fire. Day-olds get fried in butter and scrambled in eggs. For you city folks who have no idea what I’m talking about: We are a long way from the ocean—these oysters are balls. Yep, straight off the bull calves. Sounds delicious, right?

Ranchers go to more brandings than they host; For the majority of the spring many leave their ranch at least once a week to help a neighboring one. And it doesn’t end with just showing up. No matter the time of year, it’s not rare for fresh baked bread, pies or farm-fresh eggs to show up on your doorstep. If someone is sick or going through a hard time, the community will come together and deliver full meals, aid in grocery runs, help wrangle kids and jump in at the spur of the moment when anything else comes up. If you are a regular and miss Sunday church or aren’t at the local diner as usual, someone you know is sure to call and check in. If the cows get out or your truck breaks down, it doesn’t make you a burden to ask for help—it’s simply your turn.

Some may think this is a step back in time, and to an extent it is. There’s no DoorDash, Amazon same-day delivery, or Triple A to depend on, so we depend on each other. I might argue that a dependable, kind and giving community (which is commonplace in these small ranching towns) is far ahead of the times. We put our differences aside and come together. In the act of serving, you lose sight of greed and ego. I feel lucky to have grown up in this culture, surrounded by people who set such a great example of doing the right thing. Life in small town Montana runs on kind, generous, neighbors who are willing to lend a hand; the epitome of treating others as you want to be treated.

A sixth-generation Montanan, Maria Lovely embodies the spirit of the West. With her two border collies by her side, she spends her free time enjoying all that the mountains have to offer.