page design and photo by nikki carlson
story by angela brandt
SOMEWHERE IN THE BEAR PAW MOUNTAINS - For Shawn Nystrom, branding is more than a necessity - it's a chance to catch up with his neighbors.
“It's the only time when we can get together and see what everybody did all winter,” Nystrom said.
Nystrom and his wife, Heidi, had the help of about 50 of their friends, family and neighbors at their branding Saturday. The Nystroms said they normally have double that amount, but others were seeding or attending the Lohman Motorsports Complex's Sand and Mud Run.
Even with the lowered attendance, Shawn Nystrom said the branding was “Great, superb, excellent. Couldn't have asked for a better day.” A slight breeze helped blow the stench of burnt hamburger from the barn, the sun was shining and the temperature sat just under 80 degrees.
About 250 calves were roped and marked by an electric iron with the Lazy J-N brand, which originated with Shawn Nystrom's grandfather John Nystrom. Shawn Nystrom has lived on the ranch all his life.
He said he goes to an average of seven brandings each year. All of the neighbors in his community move from one ranch to the next helping each other out. The group will head to neighbor Julie Strauser's ranch this weekend.
Strauser, who said she has been branding for too many years to count, lives on a ranch her family has owned since 1911. She said they will be trying a new branding process on her calves. They will heat the iron brand with a propane-powered blowtorch, as they have in the past, but this year they will hook the calves' heads in an inner tube.
“We're trying it out because we're getting older and it is getting harder to find people who want to wrestle,” she said of the procedure, which requires less help.
Jeff Solomon, who ranches south of Havre, had some experienced help with calf wrestling. He branded about 500 calves two weeks ago with the help of the Montana State University-Northern wrestling team and women's basketball team.
“I know the wrestlers and they brought the girls,” he said.
Solomon said he used the same method as the Nystroms, roping the calves and branding them with an electric iron, but his emasculating process differs. The Nystroms use a “pinching” or “crimping” method. He uses rubbers.
“It's hard to teach the cows to put them on,” he joked.
The rubbers he uses are not prophylactic but are rubber band-like devices that cut off circulation, which causes the testicles to fall off.
Strauser said she prefers the job of emasculating or as she calls it “getting even.” Strauser said she will not miss the byproduct of the old-fashioned way because “they are nasty.”
She was lucky on Saturday because Rocky Mountain oysters were not a part of the feed.
Shawn Nystrom said the feast his family prepares for the post-branding activities, otherwise known as drinking beer, helps encourage the help.
“Why do you think people come back each year?” he said with a chuckle.
The Nystroms' brandings have not only had local visitors but also a few from the national media. Heidi Nystrom recalled the story of when “The Today Show” ventured out to their ranch about five years ago. The morning show was working on a piece about the severe drought that year but didn't get the story they anticipated. “As soon as we started branding, it began pouring so hard we had to continue in the barn,” she said. “The rain just came out of nowhere.”
“We told the reporter to come back whenever there is a drought,” Heidi Nystrom added with a laugh.
The Nystroms were branding in the barn this year but not due to a downpour. They've built a new barn but haven't yet finished the corrals.
The family has about 325 head of cattle, a dozen horses and five dogs, but the favorite of all the critters is Bud. Bud is a 9-year-old bull who looks more like a buffalo and acts more like a pet pooch. He is almost twice the size of the Nystrom's other bulls and can just barely fit into a horse trailer, but Bud comes when called and begs for treats like a puppy. His favorite goodies include beer, potato chips and watermelon.
Bud was a bum calf, rejected by his mother. The Nystroms bottle fed him and now Bud is the ranch's mascot.
The faces of adults and children alike light up at the mention of Bud.
“He's a doll. I love him,” Heidi Nystrom said.
At the branding, Bud had to be put out in one of the fields, because he always wants to be the center of attention and would interrupt the branding, she said.
The Nystroms' five children used to ride Bud, but he is too large for that now. Heidi Nystrom's sister, Stacie Miller, who also lives on the ranch, said Bud doesn't realize his mass. He's as awkward as a teen who just went through a growth spurt.
“He is massive, but Bud is such a sweetheart,” Miller said as she fed Bud a handful of hay.
Austin Moore, Stacie Miller's son, said he likes Bud because he is “big and friendly and you can pet him.”
The 11-year-old said he liked wrestling, even though he got kicked by one of the calves - “It didn't leave a mark,” he said.
Everyone in the Nystrom family had their part in the process.
Kailee Nystrom was helping chase the newly branded calves out of the barn.
“I like to move the cows and rope them,” the 7-year-old said as she pushed a calf out the door.
Kaleb Nystrom, 13, said he likes to help brand simply because “it's fun.”
A few members of the Bullhook Buffalos 4-H group helped wrestle the calves and tag their ears.
Havre High School senior Miesha Faber, 18, said the group attends about 10 brandings each year.
“You don't do sports in the spring - you brand,” Faber said.
Helen Kallenberger, Shawn's grandmother who just celebrated her 90th birthday, said it was nice to see girls out there roping and wrestling the calves. Kallenberger said that when she used to help with branding, her job was to keep the fire going because not only was “electricity not an option at the time,” but also: “It wasn't a woman's job - that was in the kitchen.”
“I never did any of the dirty work. Things have changed so much since I was little,” she said.
Kallenberger added she is glad girls have the option to be a larger part of the branding process, but she would still prefer tending to the fire because “that was the safest job.”
The wrestlers, taggers, emasculators and branders all escaped the day with just a few scrapes and a couple of ripped shirts.