A Rite of Spring in Cattle Country

Branding season is time for camaraderie, humor

The Spratling’s branding crew, from left, Boyd, Gabe, Isaac, Ian, Quaid, and Blake Spratling, Ben Patterson, and Cody Gibbs.

By Dianna Troyer
Photos by Sarah Spratling

To rancher Blake Spratling, his branding iron is much more than a piece of metal used to designate ownership of his family’s cattle.

“Picking a brand is a rite of passage in our family,” Blake says.

The 44-year-old raises Black Angus cattle in Starr Valley west of Wells on the ranch his grandfather, Max Spratling, founded in 1962.

Blake remembers picking a brand as a teenager for the fledgling cattle herd he started as a 9-year-old in 4-H, selling market animals at the county fair every summer to pay for college. He recalls his grandfather Max’s sentimentality when he picked a brand with the letters M and J—for Max and Joyce, his wife.

branding tools
The Spratling family brands: Blake’s T Double Bar and son Ian’s Lazy S Hanging Cross.

“I was practical instead of sentimental,” Blake recalls of looking through a registry of discontinued brands. “The T Double Bar caught my eye. It’s made of lines with the bar over the T, so it’s easy to see and wouldn’t blotch or become blurred with time. For me, having a brand meant I was continuing a family tradition in an occupation I love, raising cattle to feed people. It’s gratifying to know our kids will be the fourth generation to eventually rely on the ranch for their livelihood.”

In May and early June, Blake and other ranchers in northern Nevada look forward to branding season. Crews brand, vaccinate, and castrate calves, preparing them to be moved to their summer range.

Ranchers cherish the centuries-old tradition for the camaraderie of working and laughing with family and friends who help with the task, the optimism for a new calf crop, and the sense of accomplishment once the job is done.

“It’s a joyous time—the first time we get a close look at our new calf crop and identify the calves as ours,” Blake says of the first branding in May.

A crew of about 10 branded 75 calves one morning, using the corrals Max built decades ago.

“We brand about five or six times to get it all done,” Blake says.

By the time Blake moves his cattle to summer range north of Deeth, hundreds of calves will have the T Double Bar brand.

Besides Blake and his wife, Sarah, the Spratlings’ branding crew includes their sons, parents, neighbors, and friends.

“It’s not hard to find people to help,” Sarah says. “We all look forward to it. Our neighbors and longtime friends bring their grandkids. After a long winter, it’s good to see people you haven’t seen for a while. Blake’s mother, Audrey, is a big reason we get such a good crew because she cooks awesome meals.”

Astride his horse, Gabe Spratling holds a calf, while Cody Gibbs keeps pressure on the rope and Ian Spratling, front, and his dad, Blake, pull the calf to the ground.

Their crew puts a sense of play into the work. After ropers secure a calf, family friend Ben Patterson challenges the Spratlings’ sons to crouch like a sprinter beside him and race to mug the calf and help hold it down while the brand is applied.

“Ben’s in his 60s and has been to countless brandings and can still make hard work fun for the boys,” Sarah says.

For Blake, the branding tradition triggers childhood memories of being entrusted with progressively more difficult tasks.

“I remember branding with Grandpa, and my first job was getting the ear tags ready,” he says. “When you’re older, you learn to give vaccinations and to rope.”

When he went to college, Blake planned to be a full-time veterinarian and part-time rancher like his father, Boyd.

“Coming home from college, I realized I was more interested in ranching here full time than in being a vet,” says Blake, who earned a master’s degree in animal nutrition at Utah State University. “Grandpa worked hard to establish the ranch, and we’re glad to keep it going. Dad ran it for 30 years, so now we’re leasing it from him.”

Last year, Ian, 19, a freshman at Great Basin College, picked out his brand: a Lazy S Hanging Cross. Eventually, his brothers— Gabe, 16; Isaac, 15; Quaid, 11; and Barrett, 4 months—will pick out their brands.

When his neighbors and friends call for some help, Blake will be there for others.

“Branding is something we all look forward to,” he says.