The Northwest Cattle-Branding Show Goes On, With Cautious Eye Toward Coronavirus Safety
Cattle brandings in the Northwest are usually dusty group affairs.
Cowboys yell and call to each other. Horses work into a hot lather, helping their riders chase and rope the calves. Nervous mother cows bawl to try and find their babes. A smoky fire heats the irons. Children clad in Carhartt coats and cowboy hats watch from nearby pickups. You have to stay alert to not be trampled by horses or cloven hooves.
Around a million beef cattle are born each spring in the Northwest — about 228,000 in Washington, 533,000 in Oregon and 495,000 in Idaho last year according to the USDA. Around this time, all those springy-young calves need to be vaccinated, ear-tagged and branded for life on the open range.
It takes a large crew working close to get through hundreds of cattle at a time, and ranchers say the job can’t wait — coronavirus or not.
John O’Keeffe and his wife Jane run hundreds of Angus and Hereford cattle outside Lakeview in eastern Oregon, a few miles north of the Nevada border.
“We’re absolutely concerned about it,” he says. “We’re fortunate to not have any cases turn up in the area and we’re getting through it so far.”
Brandings are a time for far-flung neighbors to socialize and work together. They usually have a big meal after. Some operations have stopped that. And they sure don’t want to get each other sick.
“If you have an emergency, your second call is to 911,” O’Keeffe says. “Your first call is to your neighbor, because they are probably 10 minutes away, where 911 is probably a couple of hours away. So no, we’re real dependent on our neighbors.”
O’Keeffe says the nearest medical help, the small Lakeview hospital, is about 35 miles from his ranch, and mostly specializes in stabilizing people and then airlifting them to larger facilities.
O’Keeffe says he’s inviting smaller crews to brand at his place since the global pandemic hit. But it’s hard because several people are needed around each roped calf to brand, vaccinate, castrate and ear-tag it quickly. It’s harder on the calf to do the process more slowly when people are social distancing.
After the branding, the young calves return to their rangy mothers. Sometimes they group up and play, or laze about together, napping in the sun — from the lush pastures of western Oregon and Washington to the dramatic deserts further inland.
O’Keeffe says waiting out the pandemic isn’t an option. The calves will get too big to handle. There will be more flies that would irritate wounds. And the cattle could get mixed up without brands on the open range.
Their next branding is set to begin in early May.
From Oregon to the Dakotas, hay stocks for hungry cattle are already low. On top of that, ranchers say summer pastures are dry from the widespread drought. Continue Reading Western Ranchers Are Cuttin’ Herds Like Mad To Prep For A Winter With Short Hay
It’s back to the drawing board for state regulators, after the Washington Court of Appeals ordered the Department of Ecology to rework permits for confined animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs. A panel of judges ruled that current waste discharge permits don’t adequately protect groundwater and don’t take climate change into account. Continue Reading Washington Court Rules In Favor Of Conservation Groups In Fight Over Cattle Lots And Groundwater
Some stunted wheat fields won’t see the combine this summer. Cattle operators are severely cutting back their herds for lack of grass. Little moisture since February in wide swaths of the Northwest is to blame. And drought is deepening across the West, with federal drought maps showing massive and growing areas of red. Continue Reading ‘Somber Harvest’: Crops May Fail, Cattle Sold As The Northwest Descends Into Drought