I had one job: get the nuts in the bucket before they were squashed. That’s what being on bucket duty was all about. I would follow Dad (who’s always on nut duty) with a dirty orange pail, and collect the purpley-blue strawberry-sized testicles he’d cut off of the not-quite-fully-grown bulls. Bucket duty was suited for a ten-year-old; someone of my size and skill set. I would stay far enough behind to avoid the searing-hot branding sticks, and the flailing limbs of calves and horses and full-grown men. The nuts, stringy and sticky, would wrap themselves on the fence like a poorly executed ladder toss. After the extraction and toss, my dad, six feet and fit, in his fifties, would place the scalpel, red with scrotal blood, back between his false teeth, wipe his hands on his torn second-hand jeans, adjust his always-crooked promo hat, and move on to the next calf.

The nuts would later be skinned – kind of like when the inside of a grape pops out of its tougher outer shell – cleaned, breaded, then thrown into a pan of oil. Prairie oysters. I tasted one once, didn’t like the texture, and haven’t been tempted since.

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The calves are first separated from their moms and brought into a corral, where they await their turn to be processed.

At 24, I’ve now graduated from bucket duty to tagging and vaccinating. The younger cowboys, the five, six, seven-year-old sons and daughters of our neighbors, are now on bucket duty. They’re more adventurous than I ever was, often cooking the fresh-as-fresh-can-be testes on the branding pit until they ooze and bubble, and, in the children’s minds, are cooked.

In June, the cowboys come out to Dad’s cattle ranch in rural Alberta, Canada to help him with his annual branding. They come in their big trucks, hauling their big trailers, filled with their big horses. They come with clouds of gravel dust, cases of beer, and mobs of children. They’re neighbors and relatives, who, the following week, or the week before, host their own branding events. Events Dad rarely misses.

The branding arena is rectangular, fenced in by the kind of wood that gives you splinters and the kind of metal gates that make your hands smell like blood. To the south is Archie’s – a dilapidated farmhouse with crows hiding in the closets and ghosts in the floorboards. Everything is done under the ever-oscillating watch of ninety or so windmills. These ultra-modern silver spikes are constantly whirring, constantly humming; a welcome obstruction of the once pristine prairie view.

If not for those windmills, and if not for the big shiny trucks and trailers, it would resemble a scene straight from an old western: wild and old-fashioned and nostalgic. My dad loves it, and so do I. It’s not the most efficient way of doing things. In fact, dad processes the majority of his calves weeks earlier, using a calf table – which is basically a steel box that holds the calf in place, tips them on their side, and allows the branding, tagging, castrating and vaccinating to be done by a smaller crew.

“It’s not near as much fun,” he says. So he saves a couple-hundred for this annual ritual.

Cowboys and cowgirls, young and old, expertly rope the hind feet of just one calf from the mess of calves at the end of the corral.
Cowboys and cowgirls, young and old, expertly rope the hind feet of just one calf from the mess of calves at the end of the corral.

Processing calves is a tough job and it usually lasts all day. It’s messy, it’s muddy, and makes the air smell like manure and burnt hair. But afterwards, we feast: on burgers made from Dad’s cattle, on buns, cooked fresh in mom’s oven, and on potato salad, made from the potatoes lining the cellar. It’s a job mom and my sisters take head-on with few complaints, grateful to be cooking instead of castrating.

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Sometimes, when it’s a smaller calf, Nikki’s brothers and brothers-in-law let her wrestle the calf down and get it prepared for the rest of the crew.

The cowboys and their wives and kids pack onto our wraparound porch. The kids, high from the day, take turns roping one another, drawing chalk pictures on the cement pad, throwing a stick for my family’s overzealous German shepherd.

Only a few of them will follow in the footsteps of their farming parents.

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The sickly sweet smell of burnt hair and skin fills the air at these cattle brandings.

Farming is in Dad’s blood. He started farming at fourteen years old, after his farming dad died. He always tells me he would have liked to be a teacher. And that he would have made a great hockey player. But, farming was thrust upon him, and he’s good at it. He knows the routine of every single one of his eight-hundred-plus cattle better than my own – his fourth of five who lives a six-hour plane ride away. He knows which cow had trouble birthing the year before, which one has had twins, which one jumped the fence and wandered into the neighbor’s yard. When calves are abandoned by their mothers, he cleans them and bottle-feeds them, sometimes three times a day. One of my first chores was helping Dad bottle-feed the motherless cows. They would nurse on my finger and bunt my legs with their tiny heads.

But small family farms like Dad’s are disappearing. And with them, a way of life. Machines have replaced animals; GPS technology has replaced humans.

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The brand prevents Nikki’s dad from losing his calves when they get out, and makes it easier when it’s time to bring them all to auction.

“It’s become competitive,” Dad tells me. Most farming is no longer about neighbors coming together to build a barn. But these traditional-style brandings offer a glimpse of that: the teamwork that used to be the foundation of farm life. And being there, at the branding, watching everyone work so expertly together, it’s hard to imagine any competition among the crew. The bucket-hat wearing, Wrangler-butt strutting cowboys, some in their fifties, others just teenagers – sit astride their steeds, brandishing their lassos, galloping into the mess of calves to expertly rope the hind feet of just one, then drag it behind the horse up to the wrastlers, nutters, branders, taggers, and vaccinators.

My brother and brothers-in-law are usually on wrastling duty. That’s maybe one of the most dangerous roles. Their job is to place the Nord Fork, a metal clamp, on the calf’s neck once the cowboy brings it up. Then, using their knees and muscles, they hold the calf in position while the nutters, taggers, branders and vaccinators perform their duties. My brother-in-law Brad, though short, is stocky and strong, and uses his disregard for fear to make himself useful at these events. Kelly, my other brother-in-law, is a mammoth man, and spends more time drinking beer and bullshitting than wrastling. My older brother Andrew is an old pro. He wears the same high-school jeans at every branding – jeans so thin they offered no resistance when my 21-year-old cousin Katya accidentally punctured his leg with a dirty vaccinating needle. She’d done the same thing to herself at the last branding – she got moved to tagging duty after that.

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A prairie oyster, or calf testicle, sticks itself to the rusted mental fence, awaiting pick-up from whoever’s on bucket duty.

My uncles are the branders, the enforcers of that sickly-sweet burnt-skin-and-hair smell that lingers for days. They hover around the branding fire, gloves on, waiting for the calf’s haunch to reveal itself. When it does, they rush in, brandishing the glowing-red metal stick, and press it to the calf’s skin for a few seconds.

And after the whole process is complete – in a matter of a minutes – the calves get up, look around, give a bleat, and run back into the herd, as if nothing happened.

On some farms, freeze-brands using liquid nitrogen are replacing the old-school, fire-in-a-pit brands. While freeze-branding has been proven to be less painful at the time of application, it costs a lot more. That’s just one of the modern pressures facing traditional ranchers. It won’t be long before ranchers will be required to provide some kind of pain medication before castrating male beef cattle. Right now in Canada, it’s mandatory if the bulls are over nine months. By 2018, that’ll change to six months. Dr. Joe Stookey, a professor at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatchewan and an expert in animal behavior and welfare, says these steps shouldn’t affect the community-building aspect of branding.

“It doesn’t say people can’t come anymore to the traditional roundup,” he says. “It’s just that you’re going to have one more thing to do and that includes an injection.”

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Some of the younger cowboys enjoy cooking the testicles on the branding pit immediately after they’ve been extracted.

When I asked Dad whether he would change the way he castrates his cattle, he told me this method has been tried and true for centuries, but the majority rules. “If society wants us to give cattle something for pain, we’ll do it,” he said. At the moment, he processes his calves between six and twelve weeks, meaning his brandings likely won’t need someone on pain relief duty for ten years.

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The horse and its rider wait patiently as the crew finishes up with the calf, familiar with the chaos of brandings like this.

Dad will need someone to fill in on vaccinating and tagging duty this year, because I can’t make it. And it makes me sad, not because I love doing it, but because it’s important to Dad. Only three of his five children are willing to get their hands dirty, and even then, none of us know how to rope or castrate. And none of us have any plans to take over the farm; something Dad, who’s in his late fifties, is worried about. How much longer will small farmers like himself be able to resist the pressures of big industry? How much longer until his neighbors aren’t neighbors at all, but strangers?

With everything around him modernizing and urbanizing, even his own children, these weekends are a last-ditch rejection of that change. It’s Dad desperately holding on to the way things used to be.

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Nikki Wiart is an Ottawa-based freelance writer with roots in the small town of Castor, Alberta, Canada.  Twitter & Instagram: @nikkiwiart.