DENVER — Time has changed much in the American West. On some ranches, cowboys round up cattle on four-wheelers and track livestock with drones. While technology is easing tasks, though, some think it is also threatening the skills that make a cowboy a cowboy: roping, riding and a near-religious devotion to hard work.
But for centuries, neighbors have gathered each spring for a day of branding newborn animals. Well-trained cattlemen pull a hot iron from the fire, and calves mewl as curved steel singes hair and burns flesh. Afterward, there is cheap beer and a meal, maybe a band and a dance.
The branding process has been criticized as cruel. And some families have moved to other methods, including freeze brands created with liquid nitrogen and ear tags they can read with an electronic wand. Perhaps the most notable innovation is the calf table, a viselike device that allows people to trap, flip and mark an animal, eliminating the need for a crew of helpers.
In some places, that is sending the community gathering known as branding day into the past. But not on Bill Gray's ranch outside Ordway, Colo.
Gray, 65, is a third-generation rancher who still tracks and marks his cattle the old way. His brand serves a practical purpose, allowing him to prove ownership at sale and ward off cattle thieves. (Rustling is not just a crime of the past.) "You can put the ear tag in them," he said. "But you can tear the ear tag out."
He has two symbols he uses to identify livestock. One, called a P-slash-T, was passed to him by his grandfather, like a family crest.
Ordway is three hours southeast of here and has about 1,000 people. Gray calls on many of them to help in the ritual. "Tradition has a lot to do with it," he said. "Part of ranching is neighbors helping neighbors."
Among his chief concerns is an urban-rural divide. "I'm sure urban people think that what we do, some of the practices, are barbaric. But they're not," he said. "If I mistreat my cattle, it's going to cost me money. I can't do that."
As for his neighbors who have moved to calf tables, "I don't hold it against them," he said. "Some people need to use it if they're not proficient at what we do."
Gray has eight children and 22 grandchildren and has been through a lot lately. A dry period lasting 14 years was followed by a recent drop in cattle prices. In February, his home burned down, cause undetermined.
On a recent day, Gray's roundup began just as the sun bumped over the muddy prairie. His son, his grandson, his neighbors and part of the high school wrestling team rode up to help.
Cowhands on horseback pushed hundreds of animals into corrals, and ropers lassoed the calves by the legs, flipping them onto their sides. Flankers rushed to hold the animals down as older men took out the irons. Next came vaccination, the injection of a growth hormone and, for the males, castration.
Many brandings are governed by an unspoken cowboy etiquette: Young people wrestle the cattle onto the ground, while older ones handle the iron. But Gray said that he was a bit different. "I try to let everybody do some of the jobs," he said. "That way, when it comes their time, they'll know how to do it."