GANN VALLEY - The smell of smoke filled the air as each calf received a new, tan mark of Broadaxe Ranch.
The annual branding event in mid-May near Gann Valley was filled with laughter and smiles as approximately 300 calves earned the mark. The Yost family and their friends branded about 700 calves between May 20 and 22.
The ranch is run mostly by Charley, Wade and Rodney Yost, the sons of Chuck and Kathy Yost, and their wives.
"Next year all the kids'll do this and we'll sit and drink beer," said Tara Yost, Wade's wife, as she laughed and went to vaccinate a calf.
Prior to branding, the family separated the cows from the calves and gave them their yearly vaccinations, leaving the calves waiting on the sidelines to be branded.
Four people were in charge of roping the calves and pulling them over to the forks-a metal piece that holds down the head of the calves. Some calves went along for the ride while others refused to go willingly and only succeeded in clumsily hopping backwards to the branding line. Since there weren't enough people to wrestle four calves at once, the forks helped hold the calves down during the branding, vaccinating and castrating process. When all three forks were taken, people took turns wrestling calves. The cowboys and cowgirls spent the next several hours working on the black mass of cattle, four calves at a time.
After each calf was branded, the iron was reheated and traded out for another iron to keep the process moving.
Branding for the Yosts is a family affair. Grandparents, brothers, sisters, wives, daughters, sons, cousins, nephews, nieces and neighbors. Every year, a gathering of about 20 to 40 kids and adults band together for a couple of days of hard labor at the Broadaxe Ranch. And through the generations, the work load has been passed down.
"As people got older, of course, they were able to do less and the younger would do more," Kathy Yost said.
The Broadaxe Ranch started in 1930 when Ben and Stacey Knippling and their son Paul moved to the area. Though the family has acquired pastures over time, the ranch has practically remained the same and has been home to five generations of family.
The ranch was passed down between generations. And now, the fourth generation sons Charley, Wade, Rodney and their wives divide the work.
Wade said the family owns about 700 cow-calf pairs, but the number fluctuates every year. Though the cattle are mostly black now due to cross-breeding, Kathy said the original herd was straight Herefords.
The brand of Broadaxe Ranch is, as one might suspect, the head of a broad axe. The brand for the ranch was created by Ben Knippling who one day, after chopping wood, decided his broadaxe would make a good brand symbol. From that moment, it became the symbol of the ranch and continues to mark the commercial angus beef herd.
The branding iron is special ordered and made from stainless steel. In the corners of the iron are notches to let hot air escape. This keeps the brand from becoming one, big blister on the calves' hip, Rodney said.
For Kathy, not much has changed in the way the family brands.
"It's pretty much the way we did it when I was little," Kathy said. "Neighbors came over, and now it's just different neighbors."
Kathy said even though some people have moved to more modern ways of branding with more equipment, her family stayed traditional.
"Our family and some of the others have held onto the idea of wanting to do it with the horses," Kathy said. "I think partly because these guys really like their horses, and they value the tradition, ranching traditions."
Using horses requires the rider to have good roping skills, Kathy said.
"The challenge is to learn to rope like that," Kathy said. "Mostly they all want to learn to do it, boys and girls. They spend time practicing and they want to be good at it."
Though the family has not had issues of lost or stolen cattle, the family continues to brand as a way to identify their cattle in case they get mixed up, she said. Since their neighbors also own cattle, mix-ups have been known to happen.
Charley said branding is also about quality of the cattle. Since the family sells replacement heifers to other ranches, the brand lets people know where the quality cattle came from.
Friends, family, neighbors
Remington "Remi" Yost, the 16 month-old daughter of Erin and Rodney, happily clung to her father as he held her in one hand and branded a calf with the other.
"She's going to be a cowgirl," Erin said as Remi stared at the cattle in awe.
The role of babysitter for Remi and some of the younger children was passed back and forth among the group. The kids tossed around flags. Children roped people's feet. Playful wrestling matches broke out between kids and adults. And it was all weaved in between adults reheating irons, refilling syringes and roping cattle.
Though it's a day of hard work, it's one of the family's favorite times of year, Erin said.
"It's almost like Christmas time," Erin said. "Not quite, but close."
Kathy said branding offers a time for the Yosts' friends, family and neighbors to gather, catch-up, have fun and eat a meal together, similar to a holiday gathering.
"If you can't have fun and joke around, you're doing something wrong," Charley said.
For Charley, the best part about branding season is working with cattle, having the neighbors come help out and the comradery of the whole event.
"Some people, it's only the guys. But for us it's a family event and a learning experience for the younger generations," Charley said. "Everyone brings their kids and everyone gets to be involved."
Friends from around the state, and sometimes from around the country, help the Yosts during branding season.
"People have a different description of what a neighbor is," Charley said. "It's not so much about location as it is the way you work together ... the others are just as much neighbors as those next to us."
Darcy Krick, a friend from Highmore, said her history with the Yost family goes back to her parents.
"We've been helping ever since we were little, you kind of become a family," Krick said. "It's great to all be together for a day or two."
Kathy said the help goes both ways. The Yosts also help the Krick family work calves and artificially inseminate.
"People kind of look out for each other," Kathy said.
In the past, Charley said the family have also had friends from Wade and Rodney's rodeo days come from Michigan to help during branding.
From working cattle to the comradery between neighbors, Erin said she wouldn't raise kids any other way.
"It's a way of life," Erin said. "There's no better way to raise them than 'ag.' "