Witcher Ranch

In the spring, the calves start coming.  Coveralls get put up on the winter rack, chickens start laying eggs once again, the days get warmer and the sun shines longer.  And with every birth the herd grows in size, so long as the coyotes keep away.  This year, by Cinco de Mayo, all but one calf had been born on the Witcher Ranch.  First order of business . . . branding.

Beef-cattle spend their time grazing pasture.  In the olden days, different herds mingled on the open range, but come fall the ranchers rode in and cut out their own.  To do this each man had a unique mark, and each bovine had that same mark seared into their hide.  Find the brand, find your animal.

These days, the range has been fenced in, but cattle always seem to find a way into places they ain’t supposed to be.  Different problem, same solution.  Find the brand, find your animal.  And at Witcher Ranch, that brand is the Box-L.

I left the city for the weekend, pleased to see suburbia disappear behind the first bend of the canyon.  In short time I was deep into the rolling ranchlands of south-central Colorado, passing small towns and breathing in the crisp mountain air.  The asphalt gave way to gravel and I got a wave from everyone I passed on the dirt roads.  Pulling in to the old ranch, a few folks were gathered for a barbeque.  One certainty on any ranch is that there’s never a shortage of beef.  We ate the meat of a grass-fed beef-steer affectionately named Sir Loin.  Delicious and raised off the hills around us.  But dinner gave way to an early night, as an early morning lay ahead.

I awoke to the cows bawling—or, mooing, as some would say—out in the pasture beside the house.  Out front a group of elk lay bedded down in the hay meadow, casually watching as I moved around inside.  As I pulled on my boots the sun crested over the summit of Pikes Peak off in the east.  The morning was cool and bright.  We fed the horses first, and that had us rounding up the cattle on foot like farmers.  But they came in easy, milling around in the corral as we waited for our friends to arrive.  Slowly but surely, the trucks came rolling in.

Toll Witcher built the ranch in 1870, and in the hundred-forty-two years since, not much has changed in the way things are done.  One truth remains as strong as ever in the ranching life.  Self-sufficiency.  On Witcher Ranch alone there’s a blacksmith shop, a slaughterhouse, a root cellar, a chicken coop, and a half-dozen other buildings that make it possible to live well with little help from the civilized folks down in the city.  Surely, technology has brought more convenience into the fold, but not at the cost of giving up the ability to take care of oneself.

On the other hand, community is everything to a rancher.  Neighbors are more than just people you borrow a cup of sugar from.  They are friends, brothers and sisters, always willing to lend a hand.  With that in mind, the last of the trucks pulled up and it was time to get working.  The branding pot was fired up and the irons cherried red.  The ropers mounted their horses and the ground crews stood waiting.

Lassos started flying, catching calves by their hind legs, left and right.  The process on the ground is simple.  Calf comes in, flip him over, jump on the head.  Another one grabs the back end, throws off the rope, stretches him out.  They can put up a pretty good fight sometimes, especially the ones who’ve fattened up for a few weeks, but once they’re down, there ain’t a whole lot a calf can do with a two or three people on top.

After that, things happen quickly.  Every calf gets two shots of vaccination.  Dehorn the ones who need it by cauterization.  Castrate the bulls by putting a tiny rubber-band around their oysters.  And of course, brand each one with the Box-L.  In thirty seconds it’s through and they’re back with mom.  She licks them down with an empathy only a cow can understand.  With no chutes or modern machinery to help in the process, it’s the same way ranchers have been holding brandings for hundreds of years.  Same as they did on the open range.  Authenticity and nothing less.

Some folks showed up from the school on the property, most of whom weren’t accustomed to the ranching life.  They stood on the back of the flatbed truck watching the work being done, not sure what to make of it.  To the layman, it might seem harsh, but the aim is to make that necessary process as quick and stress-free as possible.  Nonetheless, it was some kind of comedy seeing hipsters in cutoff jeans and v-neck tees standing in the same corral as cowboys getting down and dirty in the shit.

When all was said and done, sixty-four calves walked away ready for the season.  As the dust settled, I could finally clean the cow-patties out my eyes.  The crew gathered on the porch to eat some well-deserved lunch, sip on some brew, and shoot the breeze.  As we sat there looking out over the herd, grazing quietly once more, a feeling of satisfaction came over us all.  It could be felt in the laughter and in the retelling of moments from the morning.  And it brought to mind another truth a rancher never forgets: nothing beats a job done right.