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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

Ranchers Feeling the Heat

Branding is a tradition in cattle country, but animal rights groups call it barbaric. Technology may ride to the rescue.

June 08, 2002|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROSE, Neb. — An hour before sunup, under the wide prairie sky, the Shovel Dot Ranch is still. The hills are draped in shadow. Then, a rumble. Distant pounding.

The cattle come surging over a rise, bulky, bellowing, the calves unsure, their mamas, panicked, pushing them forward. Cowboys in the saddle thunder beside, yelling "hey," yelling "yep, yep, yep," driving the herd toward the corral. The horses snort, the cattle low, and they all barrel in. The gate swings shut. The noise swells, thick as the dust.

It's branding day at Shovel Dot.

Over the next eight hours, with the help of their neighbors, brothers Larry and Homer Buell will burn their ranch's insignia into the rumps of 800 calves.

Swapping stories, swatting sweat, the ranchers fall into a routine: Lasso a calf. Drag it from the corral. Wrestle it onto its back. Vaccinate. Castrate, if it's a male. Then press a red-hot branding iron to its left hip. Hold it, smoking, for three long seconds, as the smell of singed hair rises. Let go. Rope another.

The routine has changed little since great-grandfather Benjamin Franklin Buell staked out the Shovel Dot in the Sand Hills of north-central Nebraska in 1883. Counting 6-year-old Ashly, who rode out on the roundup in her red cowboy boots, six generations of Buells have worked to the same timeless rhythm each spring.

The family treasures the tradition. But the tradition is under threat.

Pressured by animal rights advocates who call branding barbaric, major restaurant and grocery chains will meet this summer to consider a ban on buying beef from cattle that have been branded. Burger King already has urged its suppliers to stop branding. This fall, the chain will consider making the request mandatory.

In response, researchers are scrambling to come up with alternative IDs that the cattle industry will accept.

So far, they have tried everything from microchip implants to retinal scans to ear tags imprinted with bar codes--only to run into resistance from ranchers who find the devices impractical, or government regulators wary that they could contaminate beef.

Perhaps the most promising devices on the market are microchips that are clipped to an ear tag or injected into the first chamber of a cow's stomach.

They can carry an animal's complete health records, updated by hand-held computer at each treatment. They also can track each cow's location as it moves from pasture to feedlot to slaughter. And the information can be stored online.

Intrigued by the potential to trace and contain disease outbreaks through such databases, the U.S. Department of Agriculture soon will begin studying how to standardize several competing technologies.

So, many in cattle country suspect that it's only a matter of time--years, not decades--before branding becomes a museum exhibit, like spinning wool or forging horseshoes.

Here on the Shovel Dot Ranch, that does not go over well.

Co-owners Homer and Larry Buell brand their herd for practical reasons. They believe it's the only permanent, tamper-proof, affordable way to identify the 1,400 heifers--and all the calves--they run on 30,000 acres.

But the decision to brand is not wholly economic. There's an emotional tug to it too.

Branding day is the capstone of the spring--a chance to mark, quite literally, a job well done, a new calf brought into the herd. There's pride in seeing that Shovel Dot logo--a stylized shovel with a dot in the center--on so many animals.

After months of lonely labor--helping cows give birth at midnight, feeding a wobbly newborn at 3 a.m.--branding day is a rare opportunity to connect with neighbors, to pull on a beer, to shoot the breeze.

The kids turn out in their Wranglers and leather chaps. It's a chance to teach them what's already in their blood, to watch as the 11-year-old ropes his first calf, as the second-grader, grunting, pins a 250-pound Hereford to the ground.

It's a chance to ride hard across the range. A chance to put aside the all-terrain vehicles and the spreadsheets, the genetics charts and the online market updates--a chance to feel, for a grungy, gritty morning, like a cowboy.

Larry Buell's daughter Devon Nelson, 23, smiles at her little girl in the red boots and says she hopes Ashly will be pressing the Shovel Dot brand into calves when she is grown.

"It's our heritage," she explains. "This keeps you in touch with the way things were."

Little Sign of Trauma

The cattle moan when they're branded. They roll their eyes. They flinch. Their tongues hang out. They jerk.

Most are just 2 to 4 weeks old; a few still trail the dried-up remnants of their umbilical cords. Smoke curls up as the iron is applied.

Sometimes, flames shoot out. The musty odor of burned hair hangs heavy.

The branding iron burns a scar in their hides the reddish-brown color of saddle leather. The scar may remain inflamed for months.

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