Social distancing hindering branding efforts

Pickups towing stock trailers begin arriving at 6:30 a.m. on the Waits homestead in the Nebraska Sandhills, where some 70 relatives and friends will help a ranching family brand nearly 600 spring-born calves in less than six hours.

Ranching may sound like a good way to be socially isolated without doing anything out of the ordinary. That is not always the case, though, particularly at branding time. It’s a tradition for folks to gather from miles around to help another ranching family work the young calves.

While cowpokes as young as 7 help hold down the calves, cowpokes as old as 70 brand, castrate, vaccinate and tag. Others on the scene are visiting or preparing food. Children are playing. It’s part of the ranching lifestyle. However, this year, traditions have had to give way to health and business realities, due to a virus that respects nobody’s property lines.

Mike Henry, North Platte feedlot operator and cattle producer, said they opted for several small brandings this year, working only 40 to 50 calves at a time. A lot fewer people are involved that way. There are no big gatherings.

The precautions are critical, said Randy Saner, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension educator based in North Platte. This year, leave the children and the elderly at home, along with people who have health conditions that put them at special risk. Even physically fit people who do not take social precautions seriously, may not be the ones to invite to a branding, Saner said.

Nobody knows how soon the threat will lift, or whether it will return later on. Regardless, calves are not all born at the same time; there will be brandings in late spring, summer and well into the fall. “There are things that must be done,” at the right time, said Saner, no matter what else is happening in the world.

Some ranchers have simply decided to hire veterinary clinics to work their calves for them.

Eastside Animal Center in Gothenburg has been providing the service for years, particularly for cattle producers who also grow crops and need to be in the planter at branding time. However, this year there is that added reason, and the demand has grown as a result.

Morgan Schenk, a veterinarian at the center, speculated that some of the new branding customers will continue contracting for the service even after the threat of COVID-19 is past, now that they see how much time and trouble it saves them.

Saner suggested that if cattle producers do their own branding, they use calf tables or Nord Forks instead of the traditional method of holding down a calf. Those are humane handling devices that allow one or two people to do the job of three or four.

When small work gatherings do take place, Saner suggested bringing individual lunches from home. If meals are served, carefully follow sanitary procedures, he said. Social distancing applies at meal time, too.

Eastside Animal Center is taking its own precautions. When the virus hit Nebraska, the center separated workers into two teams. One team goes out into the country to do brandings, artificial insemination, bull checks and other services while the other team is in the clinic caring for large and small animals. They rotate assignments.

“I have coworkers that I haven’t seen in a month,” Schenk said.

If someone on one team contracts COVID-19 “we don’t want it to put the entire center in quarantine,” and out of operation.

As for other chores on the farm or ranch, Saner said communication is key: Everyone needs to know exactly what tasks are going to be done, who is going to do them and how exposure to other people will be limited.

Oh, and, “don’t pass the bottle around when the work is done,” Saner said.

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