KITTITAS, Wash. — Bryce Henderson strides across the green field in leather chaps, rapidly unwinding a long, rubber-coated wire behind him, carefully avoiding the iron’s hot-tipped rods. Squaring his shoulders toward the opening in a nearby pen, Bryce nods, signaling two cowboys who rope and guide a young calf directly in front of him.
Henderson places his foot on the animal’s left flank, pressing the iron into its hide, creating a puff of black smoke carrying the smell of burnt hair and bleating mooing, into the air.
One by one, Henderson and the mounted cowboys drive more than 100 calves from the pen, branding, vaccinating and caring for each one.
There are some traditions that have outlasted modern technology and cattle branding is a practice that has changed little over time. Across Kittitas County, cattle ranchers are preparing to brand their livestock with their unique signature. Marking livestock identifies who the owner is, acting like a pink slip for a car. If cattle are stolen or escape an enclosure and wander off, they can be identified and returned home.
In the American West, branding is a complex marking system regulated by the government. Washington state does not record duplicate or similar brands. Instead, ranchers must come up with their own brand resulting in a wide range of unique designs often reflecting the ranches they represent. The Henderson’s brand is a square box with wings, a play on the ranch’s name, Flying Box Ranch.
According to Sunny Faultner, a retired rancher, the world has changed significantly in the past century, creating a disconnect between food providers and food consumers.
“Most of the people who aren’t directly involved in the agricultural industry are so far removed from their food source, they don’t understand how they get it, other than that they go to Safeway to buy it,” Faultner said.
Faultner watches as a young steer is branded and castrated. Faultner said castrating steers helps them gain weight to make beef.
Although Faultner is happy the ability to get food is easier now than ever before, he is frustrated when ranching communities are attacked for being inhumane or cruel.
“This is something that’s been going on since time began in the West,” Faultner said. “When you can slap a red hot iron on them, that doesn’t burn through the hide. You’re not torturing them, you’re just doing a process that has to be done.”
Linda Henderson, Bryce Henderson’s mother and one of the owners of Flying Box, also believes that there is a disconnect between urban centers and rural ranching communities.
“People think that we don’t take care of our animals, we misuse antibiotics and we don’t take care of our land,” she said. “This is our valuable asset … look at our land, it’s beautiful and our animals are like our kids. If we don’t take care of them, we don’t make anything.”
Linda Henderson watches as a crew of women help hold a calf to the ground administrating vaccines to the animals nasal and neck. Afterward releasing a disoriented calf to open green pastures dotted with flowers to rejoin its parents.
According to Linda Henderson, most of the beef industry in the U.S. is supplied by small ranches that have kept the trade alive within families. According to the National Cattleman Beef Association, 91 percent of beef ranches are family-owned or individually operated.
“A lot of people don’t have family to come in, so when folks get old, then they sell it off and sometimes it’s to other ranches, but sometimes it will get split up and houses built onto it,” Linda Henderson said.
Bryce Henderson is proud to be the fourth generation to take control of the family’s ranch. But, like many farmers and ranchers in the country, the family has faced setbacks through the years.
High prices for limited land, expensive vaccines and lack of governmental support are a few factors causing some farmers to encourage their children to pursue livelihoods outside the ranching industry.
According to Bryce Henderson, people can still make a profit in the beef industry unlike the dairy industry, which is surviving via consolidation.
“It’s a long-term thing for us. We’re not in it to make a quick buck and get out of it,” Bryce said. “You don’t make a lot of money out here and the profit you do make is kind of like a tithing that kind of keeps you in the business.”