Sandhills Spring Branding

CR Jewell is one of many riders driving Husker Red cattle to a corral on branding day at the Gudmundsen Ranch north of Whitman.

AJ Dahm

The fleeting but frigid weather front will not deter these cowboys and cowgirls from their morning’s work of rounding up 330 cow/calf pairs and then branding, dehorning and inoculating the calves. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory straddles the Cherry, Grant and Hooker county lines north of Highway 2. 

The 12,800-acre spread is a working ranch with plenty of work to do. A convoy of neighbors pulling horse trailers up the single-lane oil road shows up at first light to lend a hand when it’s time for spring branding.

 Snow atop greening spring pastures is nothing new to these ranchers. Neither is the onslaught of jokes and jabs coming from the barn. Andy Applegarth mischievously asks a neighbor if he is done calving, knowing darn well that he’s far from it. The remark overflows the barn with laughter. Applegarth manages the ranch and, by all accounts, is chief instigator of the humor. “If you can’t take a joke around here then you are in the wrong spot,” Applegarth said. 

This spacious spot in the Sandhills was his great-grandfather’s ranch until 1944. Applegarth grew up a mile from here and knows the critical importance of people relying on one another in a land where the nearest neighbors often live tens of miles away. 

“The university didn’t want anyone who wasn’t an employee helping with our brandings when we first took over the ranch in 1981,” Applegarth said. “Then they learned that it is the culture out here: Neighbors help neighbors.”

Elmer “Pete” Gudmundsen and his wife, Abbie, gifted their Rafter C Ranch to the University of Nebraska Foundation in 1978. UNL operates it as a research and educational facility. The ranch’s Wagonhammer Education Center is the site of classes and events; the ladies of the Whitman Community Club are hosting a lunch here today. The ranch has a dormitory for students and scientists studying soil, economics, geology, entomology, groundwater, wildlife management and livestock reproduction. Applegarth supervises a crew of three full-time technicians.  

With their animals saddled, riders head out into the hills to find the herd. Some trade felt Stetsons for warmer wool strap caps. Jacki Musgrave hangs her hat 40 miles away in Bingham – that’s part of the neighborhood as far as these Sandhills folk are concerned. The North Dakota native has worked here since 1996. She tracks data and oversees graduate students, and is mother to sons Wyatt and Zane, who are missing school for a few hours today to pull down calves. Musgrave tackled her second Boston Marathon a few days ago – her 31st marathon overall – and is ready to let her horse, T-bone, do much of the legwork today. 

A rider crests a high hill followed by the herd and other riders. They flush a herd of mule deer and a single long-billed curlew. “They say there will be three more snows after you see the first spring curlew,” Musgrave said. 

The double-burner branding stove roars to life, and soon its eight irons glow orange-red. A crowd gathers around the heat, and the chorus of bawling cattle – each one 3/4 red Angus, 1/4 Simmental, and known as “Husker Red” – grows louder as the herd enters the corral.

The crew springs into action without a word. A trio of horseback ropers, some astride saddles won as the top prizes in roping championships, weave through the animals to separate calves from their mothers. Their ropes fly true. 

The riders drag wide-eyed calves by their hind feet to two-person teams, many of them children, who flip the animals onto one side. One pulls the top hind leg while keeping a boot tight against the bottom hind leg as the other holds the animal’s head down and holds up one of its front legs. This routine happens at three locations within the corral simultaneously. 

Helpers move in to give each animal an injection in the neck. The calves are dehorned, treated for scours if necessary, and males are castrated. The latter is Tim Evans’ only job here today. The rancher who grew up “just down the valley” is master of the thin, surgically sharp pocket knife he uses for the chore. His matter-of-fact explanation for being here is simple, “I help them; they help me with mine.”


For the rest of the story see the March/April 2018 issue of Nebraska Life.


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