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Branding a tradition

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

It's all about tradition.

There's a little love of horses and cattle thrown in for good measure. Well, and it's also something of a social affair.

There are, in fact, a number of reasons why the beef unit at Fort Hays State University continues the time-honored tradition of rounding up and mugging calves.

It's a mix of old and new, as a calf is roped and brought to a waiting crew, who bring it down, holding all four legs to allow branding, vaccinating and castrating, if necessary.

It's the time to identify the calves, said Gary Rolland, manager of the FHSU beef program.

The roundup method of working calves -- complete with a big hearty lunch and a cowboy poet -- has been in place for nearly 30 years.

"I'm going to say every year I've been here," said Rolland, a 32-year veteran of the university. "We brought those practices with us when I came here."

Rolland said he thinks the tried-and-true practices are easier on the calves.

"I try to blend the things of the past that really work," he said, "that we don't seem to improve on. Some of the old ways are probably the gentlest-minded ways to handle these calves."

It doesn't hurt any that people associated with the university's animal science program generally like cattle and horses.

"As you know, we love this business," Rolland said. "We truly love cattle and horses."

It's also a social event, he said.

"We had all our friends and neighbors come," he said.

Members and alumni of the beef cattle program came out as well.

There are a number of ranches in the area that continue to use the old roundup methods, and they each offer help to the others.

Mike and Sandy Sprague, for example, along with their son, Cord, were on hand for the FHSU roundup, just as Rolland generally is on hand for the roundup on their ranch.

"In the area ... you could probably go to half a dozen brandings," Rolland said.

With several experienced hands showing up, there's always plenty of knowledge that goes into how best to handle the calves. The experienced people are placed with those who aren't quite as experienced, he said, part of an effort to keep everything running smoothly.

In the more traditional roundups, he said of using cradles or tables to handle the calves, there's always talk of someone getting kicked or run over. And that might be part of the reason why help is hard to come by.

That's generally not the case when someone on horseback ropes a calf and takes him to the muggers for treatment.

"I think it's easier," Rolland said of handling a calf. "The better you get, the easier it is."

There's an added benefit that comes with the roundup, one tied directly to a program Rolland oversees at the university, the beef cattle management program.

"It's a unique program," he said. "There is not another one like it anywhere."

What sets it apart, Rolland said, is students spend a semester in an internship program that puts them in the field, at a feedlot or on a ranch, for example.

With only a dozen students in the program, its size is manageable.

"We meet weekly and go over things like a board would," Rolland said.