Tom Ross: Change, change on the range … Branding cattle doesn’t have to involve a red-hot iron any longer
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — There was change in the breeze May 25, when friends and neighbors gathered at the Stanko Ranch just west of Steamboat Springs for the spring ritual of branding calves.
But, for the first time in the 112-year history of the ranch, the old-school branding irons used for more than 100 years to burn the overlapping “Seven through Seven” brand onto the flank of the year’s crop of calves remained on display on a rack in the corral. Instead, the new crop of calves was branded with a new set of irons designed to “freeze” their IDs onto their skinny rumps.
The Stankos and a crew of loyal volunteers, were using branding irons that were kept freezing cold in a solution of chemicals and dry ice.
Safe to say, the change instigated by the Stankos’ son Patrick and daughter-in-law Jan was far less traumatic the calves. Instead of scorching three layers of the calves’ skin, Jo Stanko said this method simply freezes the hair follicles under a shaved patch of a calf’s flank. The animals react briefly to the cold iron, then quickly become calm.
And cold branding offers advantages for the rancher, too.
“The hair comes back white (in the shape of the brand), and it’s supposed to be much easier to read from a distance,” Jo said.
Branding cattle not optional in Colorado
The Brand Inspection Division of the Colorado Department of Colorado scrutinizes the brands on cattle to verify ownership before sale of the animal, transportation beyond 75 miles, or out of state or before slaughter.
Cold branding, like the process the Stanko Ranch tried out this spring is not brand new, but it has caught on relatively slowly in Northwest Colorado.
The Brand Inspection Division accepts cold branding but still regards hot iron branding as the most effective way to identify cattle.
You may also have seen cattle in pastures that are wearing bright yellow ear tags that identify individual animals, but they have not proven to be foolproof.
“We had two calves lose their tags in our pasture this winter,” Patrick Stanko said.
And when the cattle are turned loose on public lands for grazing over the summer and early fall, it can be even tougher on ear tags as they graze through the brush.
When a veteran crew comprising friends and neighbors of the Stanko Ranch gathered May 25 in the lower pasture along the Yampa River to gather the cattle, Ryan Scott was the only wrangler mounted on a cow pony.
“The rest of us were riding our Japanese quarterhorses,” Jim Sanko confessed with a wry note in his voice.
He was referring to the ATVs that gathered the cows and calves with little fuss. It was noticeable how quickly and efficiently the cowboys and cowgirls on mechanized ponies got the cattle across Routt Country Road 33 to the corrals where branding would take place.
The Stankos have always preferred to take their time gathering the cattle, Jim’s wife, Jo, said.
“We have veteran cows that lead and know exactly what to do,” she added.
Asked what’s coming next, the Stankos’ neighbor and a devoted helper on branding day Scott Flower ventured, “They’ll probably start herding cattle with drones any day now.”
Actually, that change is already being tested on the Stanko Ranch.
Patrick Stanko’s son Justin, 15, convinced his father last winter to try checking on the status of the cattle in their winter pasture using his drone camera.
“We’ll probably start using a drone when the cattle are on the upper pasture this summer,” his grandfather Jim Stanko said.
Asked how his own grandfather might have reacted to the sight of cowboys and cowgirls checking on the herd with a remote-controlled drone and making the spring roundup from the saddle of a four-wheeler, Jim replied, “Maybe you can’t write this, but, he’d probably say, ‘I’ll be damned.’”
In 1952, Jim Stanko’s grandfather Pete rode the Rock Island Railroad to Detroit to pick up a new Super Buick and drove it home to the Yampa Valley.
Pete came to Colorado to operate a saloon near the coal mines of Walsenburg more than 100 years ago. But when he tired of the rough horseplay in his establishment, he sold out and came to the Yampa Valley. He purchased his ranch in 1907 from Logan Crawford, a son of James and Margaret Crawford, the founders of Steamboat Springs.
Tom Ross retired from the Steamboat Pilot & Today in 2018 after 36 years in the newspaper business. He continues to write a regular column for the paper.
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