Beyond the necessary business aspects of marking cattle, brandings are big springtime social events on Montana’s ranch lands. The valley snow has melted and green grass permeates the rolling hills of Big Sky Country. When neighbors live several miles apart, brandings are important social gatherings that reinforce valuable bonds. Hard work and helping hands shared among neighbors and friends have always been key to surviving in rural Montana communities.

These Instagram photos were taken by staff member HelloFromClaire

Depending on a ranch’s capabilities and weather considerations, most calves are born in late winter or early spring. By late April, most babies are ready to be branded. The morning of a branding, cattle are gathered and sorted. Calves are separated from their mothers and kept in a different pen.

Branding attendees are divided into two groups:  ground crew and ropers. Ropers catch calves around the hind legs and drag them to the ground crew who are waiting with vaccines, de-wormer and branding irons. Once a Montana ranch has marked all their cattle, the cows and calves are ready to be turned out in summer pastures. They spend the warm months grazing on mountain grass.


Just like a fox hunt or a dinner party, brandings have their own rules of etiquette. Traditionally, the host doesn’t rope at their own branding. They are expected to provide food and drinks for participants in exchange for help with the long day of work. If you ever find yourself in Montana’s ranch country, here are some etiquette guidelines passed along by a few local cowboys:

1. The invitation

Reciprocity is the name of the game in rural communities. Generally, invitations are extended to resourceful and capable neighbors, family, handy friends and other ranchers who have invited you to their brandings over the years.

2. Pay Attention

Pay attention to what’s happening to prevent accidents. Brandings can be chaotic and action packed. There are ropes, needles, hot irons and live animals everywhere. Focusing on what’s happening around you is vital. No matter the job, you must be aware of your surroundings.

3. Every ranch brands differently

No two brandings are identical. Each ranch has their own customs and workflow. Always respect the host rancher’s way of doing things. If you are unsure of their customs, either ask or sit back and watch before jumping in. 

4. Be a respectful roper

When asked to rope, cowboys must be respectful of other ropers in the pen. If you need to rebuild a loop it’s polite to do so out of the herd. Keep things calm and avoid trotting in the pen. The calves are less likely to scatter, making them easier to rope.