To most, Mother’s Day means flowers, chocolates, and jewelry. But in my family, it has come to mean something entirely different. For over 50 years now, Mother’s Day is synonymously known as 'Branding Weekend' at the ranch.

A big part of any cattle operation is branding. It involves a lot of hard work and preparation. The herd needs to be gathered and calves separated. Vaccinations need to be ready, and the needles and knives sharp.

Shane Stotlar (as child) participating in branding with his mother (left), and then with his own children (right).

I don’t know if there is any way to capture the excitement of branding, especially for a young kid. Early in the morning, I am already up, pulling on my jeans and boots and slapping on my dusty cowboy hat. But that is only part of what I wear. There is an overwhelming sense of adventure and pride that is jangling as loud as my spurs as I head down the stairs. 

I hurry down to the hearty breakfast that Mom and Grandma have prepared. They must have been up even earlier than me. Eggs, bacon, hash browns, tortillas, orange juice – life just doesn’t get any better than breakfast at branding. 

Out the door and down to the corrals, I hustle to saddle up my horse, so Pa and the big kids don’t leave me behind. The energy is palpable. Dogs and horses are milling around with all the hustle and bustle of getting out on the trail. 

Up that canyon, over that hill, behind that bunch of trees – we all scatter looking for the mama cows and their new little calves. The morning stretches into the afternoon, and the sun starts to really beat down on my neck and ears. The mosquitos and cedar gnats buzz incessantly around me, but it doesn’t dim the magnificent view in front of me. I love seeing the wide-open range, dotted with cows and riders. I take a deep breath of fresh air and feel as part of this land as the mountains in the distance. The herd is starting to come together and move collectively towards the general direction of the corrals. Soon, they are all there– the lumbering bulls, the watchful cows, and the bawling calves. The noise of the trail is as soothing as the creak of my saddle. After a while, I dig into my saddle bag for a gulp of lukewarm water and then chew on a granola bar as the barn and corrals appear on the horizon. The fun is only beginning.

Back at the corrals, we sort the calves from the cows, make sure all have food and water for the night and head back to the house for dinner. 

The next morning starts out as if life is on repeat. But now the sounds at the corral are different. The irons are heating in the fire, the gates are clanging, and I can hear the aunts and uncles calling out to “Open that gate”, and “Turn that big one back!” All the cousins start shaking out their ropes and warming up their loops. 

Mom and grandma are back in the thick of things. I’m not sure how most of the things just magically get done, but they must have something to do with it, because the vaccines are ready in the cooler, ear tags and tagger are sitting close by, and notepad and pen are there, just waiting to keep track of everything. 

Branding has been going on for hours. The cousins are still running around, drinking pop from the endless supply in the coolers. Toddlers and chubby babies hanging out at the bottom of the fence are starting to show the effects of rolling around in the dirt. The dust is matted in their hair, and their hands and face show a mixture of mud, pop, and cookie remains. Some cheeks have dried evidence of tears cutting tracks through the grime on their faces, testifying of squabbles and tumbles that have occurred throughout the day. The mothers in the family, young and old, are ever present to wipe away the tears, reapply sunscreen, and run things back and forth in all the chaos, all while packing a baby on their hip.

In our family, branding has always been more than just branding. It is time for all the family to gather together and be a part of something that is bigger than each of us. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, friends enlisted from the college-aged bunch – all come together and get the work done. It’s almost like a grand orchestra, with each member playing a few important notes to make the weekend happen, with only a few discordant notes mixed in. But all in all, it ties us together. 

After the last cow is vaccinated, the last calf is wrestled and branded, we turn the mamas and babies back in together and soon they find each other. The sounds of the day smoothly fade away as the contented babies, now with full bellies, bed down with their mothers softly lowing by their side.

After all the gates are closed and latched, we clean up the remains of the day. Soon, we head back to the ranch house where we know there will be another hearty meal waiting for us. Our own mothers have seen to feeding us as well. We all compare battle wounds from the day, compete for the title of dirtiest ensemble, and then fight for who gets the tub first.

I fall into bed with my eyes closing before I even hit the pillow. The tradition continues, and I can’t wait for next Mother’s Day!