“Heyyy ya! Hup, hup, hup,” a woman’s voice echoes down a heavily wooded ravine. Bellowing cattle crash through thick brush in response, only to be turned in another direction by the fervent whistles and “whoops” of several horse-mounted cowboys waiting at the bottom of the draw.
This is not in Texas or an old Western movie. It’s the yearly Ewoldt cattle roundup and branding a few miles west of Davenport.
Donning a well-worn pair of leather chaps, Jennifer Ewoldt leans forward on her horse, peering up the hill into the trees.
“Today we are rounding up and branding our calves,” she says. Then she stops, grins, looks up, “which means we get to have fun with all of our friends … and have a good day … and get muddy and dirty and injured, probably … who knows.”
Sitting high in the saddle, Chris Hausch counts cattle moving up the hillside as Jessica Riley slides off her horse to pull barbed wire from an old fenceline into a pile. Fellow riders and horses pass by. The nine cowhands continue moving the small herd of animals out of the woods into a rolling grass section of land toward the open gates of the corral.
Branding, Ewoldt says, is for when the calves are sold in the fall to a feedlot. The Rafter E brand on the animals’ hips tells everyone where they came from. If a buyer thinks the cattle look good, they know where to go to get more.
“I only know of one other person around here who brands their cattle like we do, but that’s not to say that there aren’t more out there,” says Ewoldt, who writes a farm column published every other Monday in the Quad-City Times.
“We are a very small minority who use horses to work our cattle and brand and rope calves. Working from horseback as opposed to using four-wheeler is low-stress for the cattle.”
The cattle are herded through a feedlot into a corner pen where several cowboys wait.
“Let’s get them against the back fence, don’t ya think, Jim?” Robb Ewoldt, Jennifer’s husband, yells at Jim Seifert of Donahue, Iowa. Then with a horizon-wide grin he adds, “Work smarter not harder has always been my theory.”
Then, one by one the cattle are separated, leaving only calves in the pen.
Monte Alkire of Cazenovia, Ill., tosses his lariat, snaring the back legs of a calf.
“No matter how many times I make a good throw, there’s nothing like it,” he says. “It doesn’t get any better than this for a cowboy. This is like the Super Bowl for us, and it’s a great chance to help Robb and work my horse.”
Under a nearby awning, family friends watch the action.
Helpers pull a calf a few yards outside the pen, where five individuals pounce, each with a specific purpose. One holds the head and a front leg, one controls the back legs, another gives an injection just under the front leg; a second is administered if it’s a male. The ear is tagged, males are castrated and each animal is branded.
“We use freeze branding on 95 percent of our cattle,” Robb Ewoldt says. The iron brand is placed in liquid nitrogen. “It’s different from a hot brand because we are not going into the skin, the cold changes the color pigment of the hair from black to white. The cold brand pops out more so than a hot brand would.”
With the constant bawling of calves, the process repeats itself for hours: roping, wrestling, injecting, tagging, cutting, branding.
Branding in general is less common now as most ranchers and farmers use ear tags of some sort, electronic or otherwise, Robb Ewoldt says. “It is still quite common in the western states, which follow long-standing branding laws.”
The last calf bellows as it’s released, and a young boy chases it across the pen.
“Ya, ya, ya,” he bellows back.
“Who’s drivin’, who’s ridin’?” Robb Ewoldt looks around as several hands indicate who would be riding horses back to the house where the day began.
The six amble their way across the grassy hillside and disappear into the tree line.