The piercing sizzle comes first, followed by a quick plume of white smoke and the foul smell of burning hair.

Some calves struggle more than others as they are loaded and pinned down onto the branding table at Double M Ranch in Stanfield. Tyler Potter, a seasonal worker on the ranch, grabs each animal’s back leg and does his best not to get kicked while Clint Sexson reaches for the iron.

“That buckskin color is about what I want it to be,” Sexson says as he presses the electric brander on the calf’s right hip. “If I did it any more and a blister pops up, that wouldn’t be any good.”

It only takes a few seconds before Sexson pulls away and lets the animal go to saunter along the far fence, as if nothing had happened. The process is repeated until all 95 calves in this group are tattooed with the same signature mark — a merging of the letters U and R, which stands for Double M’s original name, the Umatilla Ranch.

With spring calving underway since late January, Double M began its branding on Thursday, taking advantage of a warm and sunny morning. The cattle will eventually be sold to feedlots across the Northwest, where a healthy 900-pound steer can fetch $2,000 or more.

Branding is not required in Oregon, though producers are encouraged to brand as a deterrent to theft. Cattle rustling remains a concern, Sexson said, especially as prices continue to hit record highs due to drought.

“It would be a major concern here if all of a sudden we started missing 2-3 calves every week,” Sexson said.

A state inspector must be on hand for all cattle sales at auction or shipments out of state, whether the animals are branded or not, to verify ownership. There are 10,654 total brands currently registered with the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Double M Ranch runs about 1,600 head of cattle, mostly Black Angus and Simmental, on 6,000 acres split between Stanfield and Echo. The rule of thumb is to brand when calves are about two months old, before they become too large to handle.

As it is, it takes four people working together to brand a roughly 200-pound calf at Double M. Mike and Patsy Taylor, who live on the ranch and manage operations, check off each animal by its tag number, which keeps a record of the individual’s sex, color, birth date and weight.

It was Patsy Taylor’s grandfather, Irvin Mann Sr., who bought the land in 1944 that was expanded and developed into Double M Ranch. The Taylors, along with their sons Jack and Sam, have carried on the family operation now through four generations.

Just before each calf is branded, Patsy Taylor injects them with vaccinations for a variety of infectious bacterial diseases, known as clostridial diseases. The shots are given under the skin at the base of the neck, which is held still by a locking bar at one end of the table.

“They’re just like little kids getting vaccinated,” Taylor said. “When they’re six months old, they get another round of vaccinations and, when we wean them, they’ll get another.”

The table flips up with a clang, allowing Sexson to brand right over the top of the calf, now on its side. Not only is the brand design unique, but its placement on the animal must be consistent.

Taylor compares the brand to someone accidentally grabbing a hot frying pan or touching a hot stove. The burn doesn’t last long, but it’s enough to sear away the hair follicles and leave a permanent mark.

“They forget, though,” she said. “They’ll move on to bigger and better things after a while.”

Despite their bleats of protest, Taylor said all their calves are handled calmly with the least amount of stress possible.

“They work really hard for us, so we have to work really hard for them,” she said. “Without them, we don’t have a livelihood. You have to respect them.”

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4547.

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