When it’s branding time, friends and family turn out and make a working holiday of it, turning long days of hard effort into a celebration.

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Over four days in early April, 20-year-old Shelby Kayser, a fifth-generation rancher, saddled up her quarter horse Vodka and headed out to the rolling hills of southern Washington with friends and family members for the annual branding of hundreds of her family’s calves.

“If we don’t take care of them, they can’t take care of us,” said Nate Kayser, Shelby’s father and owner of the ranch. “Our animals did not make the choice to be our animals … It’s our responsibility to take care of them.”

Nate Kayser raised his two daughters — Shelby and Macy, 18 — on his own while running his rural ranch near Centerville, Klickitat County, between Mount Adams and the Columbia River.

Shelby Kayser described her father with awe.

“He cooks dinner; he cleaned; he cooked breakfast; he brushed and braided our hair every single day,” she said. “I hope that someday I’m half of the cowboy that my dad is.”

Nate remembers carrying Shelby in a backpack as an infant during branding, and placing her in the cab of his truck after she fell asleep. Today, both Shelby and her sister work with him.

“Both girls are very dedicated,” he said. “They are very independent and hardheaded. That’s what it takes to do well in this business.”

In Washington state, there are roughly 1.15 million cattle. Around 252,000 are classified as dairy and the rest as beef, said Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association. There are not many large-scale, family-owned ranching operations like the Kaysers’ left in Washington, he said.

“There are far more smaller producers than larger producers,” he said.

He attributes that to a variety of issues, from regulatory challenges to market issues and competition for quality land.

“It’s a difficult way to make a living … but it’s one many people find rewarding,” he said.

The Kaysers graze their beef cattle on the rolling Columbia Hills, through timber in the Simcoe Mountains and across harvested cornfields.

During branding, about a dozen and a half people — friends as well as family — not only brand the cows but also vaccinate and castrate them, and apply a topical treatment to their skin to prevent parasites.

The vaccinations help keep the animals healthy. The branding helps deter theft and serves as way to track the animals through the food system.

 

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“Think about the last big recall on spinach,” said Nate Kayser. “You have to be able to trace it back to where it came from for food-safety purposes.”

The Kayser family served a large breakfast at 6:30 a.m. for their friends and neighbors for each day of the branding. The volunteer crew worked well past sunset, and finished the day with dinner and stories.

“It’s like a holiday,” said Nate Kayser. “You have your friends, your family and it helps you get a big job done.”

“It’s like a celebration of a successful calving season,” said Shelby Kayser. “That always makes you feel good — like you worked hard and did your job and you took care of your animals and it shows.”