Ranchers humbled as neighbors and family make branding a social event

Branding cattle on the Cooksley Ranch in Custer County (NTV News)

A cowboy tradition lives on in Nebraska, as ranchers strike while the iron is hot.

Outside tiny Weissert in Custer County, dozens recently came together on the Cooksley Clear Creek Farms, to help these ranchers mark their calves.

"It's organized chaos. Really noisy, lot of people, lot of traffic, lot of fun, lot of work," Kevin Cooksley, 67, said with a smile.

He's joined by his son Casey, a fifth generation rancher, who handles the irons.

Casey's the latest in the family to mark cattle with a brand handed down for 99 years.

"This is the Frank J. Haumont brand, for Haumont Shorthorns, which is celebrating our 100th anniversary next year," he said.

Casey's sister Leah Cooksley Peterson is the record keeper, with hundreds of cattle listed on a board at her hip.

"I make sure everybody that was born and tagged at birth comes through," Peterson said.

All cattle that leave their part of Nebraska must be recorded.

"Nebraska's brand laws, I'm thankful for them," Kevin said. "We're in the brand inspection area. Basically, if you have an animal that's got my brand on it, you better have a title to the animal saying that's yours."

Casey said it's for good reason.

"Nebraska's one of the few states where cattle outnumber people we have to keep them straight somehow. Pretty easy for people to go to a pasture and steal cattle, no way to identify them if they cut out an ear tag so that's why brand comes in," he said.

Occasionally, cattle will wander off, plus the Brand Committee says there are those that are stolen.

"It costs about $500 a year for these cows to produce a calf, so if you lose a calf, that's $500 down the drain," Kevin said.

Cattle that leave the brand area are required to be inspected. Veterinarians say a brand is the surest way to show proof of ownership.

On the first Saturday in May, they open their ranch.

Casey said, "We have a lot of returning help like Adam Smith and his wife, lucky to have them come back, I have some college friends that come out of the city."

"Out daughter Katie lives at Atkinson with her husband Scott. They come down and help. Other daughter and her husband live here and Casey. It's a family affair. Shannon works harder than anybody because she's making food for 40 some people," Kevin said.

Dozens come to give them a hand, followed by the promise of a good meal.

"Pretty humbling, I tell you. I couldn't do this without them," Kevin said. "Life is too fast paced the way it is. If you can bring people together and make something that's hard to kind of a social, fun event, shared effort, everybody goes home feeling pretty good."

Leah said humane handling of their livestock is always a top concern. A veterinarian told NTV ranchers take care to minimize harm.

"After this we won't lay hands on them again until fall when we ween them, they'll spend summers fat and happy on pasture," she said.

She said the calves will find their mothers, and often nurse. Leah said they also give their cattle shots, as parents would to protect their kids from getting sick.

"They'll run out, mother will find them, lay down for a while. They’ll be fine," Kevin said.

Casey mans the branding irons. He makes sure they're heated up, and he's the one to brand most of the cattle.

He said, "We try and be as gentle as we can with the livestock. That's important to us, that's our livelihood."

FFA students, neighbors, even out-of-state relatives help. It's not an easy day.

"These guys that are wrestling, they'll get kicked, they'll get stepped on. They'll go home and lick their wounds all right, be good tomorrow," Kevin said with a smile. "I'm going to sleep really well tonight."

The day starts about 9:00 a.m. and wraps up with a late lunch back at the house, where Kevin and Shannon, their family and friends reflect.

"The good lord has been very good, feel blessed," Kevin said.

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