I’ll get into the history of the ranch and the formation of Big Dipper Cattlemen in a later article. In this article I’m going to deal with branding time at Big Dipper Ranch. I found some pictures from the 1970s that help document the way things were done.
Big Dipper was a cow-calf operation, with a herd of 30 to 35 cows plus replacement heifers and a bull. Each year the cows would calve, starting in the fall. By February we’d be looking for a break in the weather to bring in the calves for branding, vaccinating, and in the case of bull calves, castrating—so that the bulls would then be steers. In the old days horses were used to rope and throw the calves. But in later years a calf chute made it easier on both the calves and the people.
The upper part of the ranch was called the Monotti, after the family who had lived there before the present owners bought that piece as an addition to what they already owned. The house and old barn were gone and the barn that we called the Monotti barn was constructed around 1950 as a feed barn. The center portion stored the bales of hay. On each side were covered mangers to feed the hay in. The cows were calved out there and spent the winter in that area. The barn made feeding easy, but getting to the barn required a long daily hike if the narrow road slid in, which was nearly every winter.
The calves had access to feed in the calf barn, where they could gather and eat without being bothered by the cows. This also made it simple to gather them for branding: they would come in by themselves and someone would simply have to shut the gate. No milling with the cows to separate them out.
The portable calf chute was set up at the end of a narrow alleyway and the calves were worked into it one at a time. The head would go through the opening (as seen in the picture) and secured in place, the rear door shut, the shoulders clamped down and the table tipped so that the calf was lying on its side.
Then they were branded with an iron heated in a nearby fire. The Big Dipper brand was, of course, in the shape of the Big Dipper constellation. The calf was vaccinated for black-leg, tetanus, shipping fever and whatever other vaccinations were recommended at the time. Heifers would be turned loose to find their mothers in the mob of bellowing cows.
Bull calves were castrated using a knife and emasculators. If you look at the picture closely you’ll see a Folgers Coffee can. That’s where the “mountain oysters” were dropped after removal. Medication would be applied to the wound and the calf turned out. They were closely watched for a week or so to make sure there were not complications.
Lunch time meant a picnic of hot dogs cooked over the coals of the fire, cold salads, coffee, soft drinks and cake for dessert. If kids were involved there were marshmallows for toasting on the fire. Then it was back to work to finish the job.
Most years the calves were branded at the Monotti. Once in a while weather would not permit access (if the road was slid in) and the branding would have to wait until the herd was turned out into the front. Then we’d use the corral on Alpine Road. It was easy to get to but caused the infrequent passers-by on the road to stop and watch. Usually that corral was used for loading and unloading and doctoring when the cattle were on that section of the ranch.
Those days are gone now. I wish I had taken more pictures at the time, but I’m happy I can share those I have.
Here are some more pictures, probably from the early 1950s. In these photos, Big Dipper cattle are being worked in the upper corral that is still along Alpine Road (which, by the way, was called Alpine Creek Road by the locals, to distinguish it from the continuation of Alpine Road on the other side of Skyline Boulevard).
At this time, the calves were roped from horseback and stretched on the ground to be branded, castrated and dehorned (if needed). Dehorning was a bloody and painful process, not agreeable to man or beast. In later years Big Dipper Cattlemen used a Polled Hereford bull (no horns) so that many (but not all) of his calves would not have horns. By keeping polled heifer calves for replacements and breeding them back to a polled bull, more and more calves would be born polled.
When calves that are going to have horns are born you can feel a little bump where the horn is going to grow. In later years the bump on these calves would be treated with a dehorning paste when they were just days old. The caustic paste would sting for a little bit but it would also burn away the tiny nubbin of horn with much less pain than would be felt if they were dehorned by any one of several methods normally used at a later age when the horn had already started to grow.
Why cattle are dehorned is beyond the scope of this website. Since you are online, if you are interested you might search for that information yourself.