Big, blue skies and baby calves—branding season in rural America

The winters in northeast Nebraska can be harsh—we face bitterly cold temps, and are buried in snow for months on end. Those of us tough enough to stick it out are rewarded by Mother Nature’s gift of springtime, a beautiful sight to behold here in the Plains states.

When spring does eventually show its face, I’m surrounded by the birth of one of my favorite times of the year. Above me, winter’s weak, white sun grows into a bright, strong yellow orb, warming the earth more with each day, and cloudless, blue skies stretch on as far as the eye can see, more pure in color than any ocean. Right in front of me, cottonwoods burst to life with shiny, new leaves. Young, green grass seems to sprout magically overnight, and newborn animals grace the world with their presence.

Cattle brandingOf all those new furry and feathered babies, I have a soft spot for calves. Born in the chill of mid-March, these babies grow from skinny, wobbly-legged infants to playful, adventurous creatures in what feels like no time at all.

Whether the hope of what’s to come, or the return of life after a long winter, there’s something magical about springtime in Nebraska. For me, that magic includes watching those baby calves grow, and the long-standing tradition of cattle branding each spring.

My family’s grass-fed beef operation, Lightning Creek Cattle Company, holds an annual cattle branding, and every year since the 1980s, Memorial Day weekend has been a time of family and friends coming together to ride, rope, and brand.

We do it like it’s been done for the last 150 years—roping calves on horseback, and dragging them “by the heels” to the branding fire to be vaccinated, branded, and bulls castrated. When I asked my dad, JV Brummels, why it’s done this way, his answer was simple.

“This method makes for a more humane process than the modern, steel calf tables that squeeze a calf down and swing him around to perform those actions,” he said. “The whole thing takes just a few minutes, then the calf is turned in with the other calves to rest before being sent back out to the pasture to rejoin their mamas.”

Dad also provided me with the history of the herd.

“In 1984, our herd started with Angus and Hereford mama cows,” he said. “Since then, the herd has changed sizes, and different breeds like Red Angus, Charolais, and Longhorn have been added. One thing that’s stayed constant is a yearly spring branding, and all the familiar faces and traditions it brings with it—community is important to Lightning Creek.”

That community has been a constant in my life for as long as I can remember. Just as constant as winter transitioning to spring each year, our branding is a celebration of friends becoming family, as new faces join the crowd each May. We learn from each other, each generation passing down knowledge to the next, each person in attendance responsible for whatever job is assigned to them.

And, while the history of this tradition is strong, there’s something just as beautiful in the honesty and simplicity of the act. Celebrating new spring life by caring for it in a natural way—I can’t think of a better way to honor Mother Nature each year, to thank her for the flowers, the cottonwoods, the blue sky, and, of course, those baby calves.

Feature photos: Cattle branding at Lighting Creek Cattle Company in May 2019. Liz's dad, JV Brummels, and brother, Zeke Brummels, are in the top photo. | Photos by Liz Daehnke.