Published May 21 in the Hobbs News-Sun and also published by the Associated Press.
PITCHFORK RANCH -- The day started early for cowboys at David Madera's Pitchfork Ranch, about 16 miles west of Jal.
At 7 a.m. about 15 cowboys, including four generations of Lea County cowboy Bert Madera's family, rode out to the pasture to round up the cattle for the annual branding at the ranch.
At about 8:30 a.m., family, friends and neighbors gathered at the corral to photograph and videotape the cows' arrival. At the corral the cows were separated, branded, castrated and vaccinated.
This year's branding was one of the largest the ranch has had within the last 50 years, according to Madera. Nearly 300 head of cattle were branded in the two days of the roundup.
The branding was an opportunity for the family to spend time together and pass down the cowboy lifestyle to the next generation.
"It's good to be home helping with the branding. It's a big deal," said Madera's daughter Debby of College Station, Texas. "It's neat to watch my kids do the same thing I did as a kid. That very seldom happens anymore."
Inside the corral, cowboys, some dressed in boots, chaps, jeans and hats and others in ball caps, T-shirts and jeans, helped separate the adult cattle from the calves before they were branded.
Standing in front of the gate leading into a different pen, Madera looked like a matador shaking his chaps. The movements were enought to keep the claves from following the adults into the other pen in the corral.
The calves sere separated into three groups of about 50, and after the cows were separated, the cowboys took a short break before getting to the hard part -- flanking the calves while they're branded, tagged and vaccinated.
State law requires that cattle be branded or they become state property, Madera said. Every county has a branding inspector who looks for a brand when cattle are sold.
Castration is done for economic reasons more than any other reason, Madera said. Neutered bulls tend to gain weight more quickly than non-neutered bull and thus make more money for the rancher when they are sold.
Vaccinating prevents the cattle from contracting the respitatory disease "black leg" that exists in the soil in the area, Madera said. This contagious disease can lead to death. The black leg vaccination is needed before cattle can be sold on the market.
Cowboys rotated through the various tasks of the day from vaccinations to branding. For the veteran cowboys participating in Madera's branding, all the tasks were completed simultaneously in about one minute per cow. Cowboys wouldn't have been able to achieve that without good ropers who were responsible for dragging the calves to the fire.
Coloroless steam billowed around the grill, the modern day branding fire. Heat from the fire heated the branding irons. As the cowboys roped and pulled a cow to the branding fire, the cow left a trail in the dirt from where it had been dragged unwillingly to the branding.
Ten-year-old justus Bryce of Jal and Madera's grandson 13-year-old Sid Cervantes of College Station looked like wrestlers as they grappled with the animals until they were pinned on the ground. Dirt flew as the calf tried to escape but the two boys tightened their grip as they held it down.
"I'll help with a smaller one," Dillon Livington of Grand Junction, Colo., said as he warily watched the proceedings.
"It's not the size, it's the technique," Livingston's dad, Jerry, assured him.
The smell of burning flesh didn't affect the young cowboys as Madera pressed the iron to the calf's left hip, but the calf definitely didn't like the treatment. While the brand smoked, the calf wailed in agony.
Madera's nephew Tom Chaney of El Paso sat watching the proceedings from the other side of the fence.
"I'll help fi they need it but they generally have enough hands," Chaneey said. "It (the branding) is fun. It's a getaway and a good way to relax."
Evelyn Luciani of Marfa, Texas, who recently started working in the ranching industry, said Madera's branding gave her hands-on experience. It was her first time to be involved in this particular aspect of cowboy life.
"It (branding) is so safe, yet harrowing," she said. "It's neat watching the young kids learning from the masters."