Sand Hills cattle branding: ‘A simple, clean life’

A calf escapes the rope of Paul Kenner of Wood Lake as he corrals and separates young calves from their mothers before a branding at the Burdick Ranch south of Wood Lake, Neb., on Saturday, April 21, 2012. A crew of about 70 workers branded close to 800 calves. ALYSSA SCHUKAR/THE WORLD-HERALD

Years ago, National Geographic photographer Sam Abell came to Nebraska to promote his work, including his book The Life of a Photograph. During his presentation, he spoke of one of his favorite images, which he made at a branding at the Ken Rosman Ranch in Utica, Mont.

Abell’s perfect composition pulled me in, and like many photographers before me, I knew I wanted to try my hand at one of the many annual brandings in the Sand Hills of Nebraska.

Branding takes place at the historic Jim Morris Ranch south of Wood Lake, Neb., on Sunday, April 22, 2012. ALYSSA SCHUKAR/THE WORLD-HERALD

A few weeks ago, with many thanks to Elsie at the Woodlake Cafe and Joe Mundorf, an area rancher, I photographed cattle branding at the historic Jim Morris and Burdick Ranches.

Read Joe Duggan’s story and see a short video I produced on, and check out a high-resolution showcase of my pictures.

Like anything worth the effort, photographing branding is incredibly taxing, but it’s visually loaded and very rewarding when the right elements come together.

Trent Leichleiter, at right, and Kolton Fleischman hold down a calf as Terry Burdick, at left, injects a shot, at the Jim Morris Ranch south of Wood Lake, Neb., on Sunday, April 22, 2012. "The whole time you're wrestling the calf, there's a lot of adrenaline, and when you get the calf down, a big relieve is off," Leichleither said, adding, "It's over and over again all day long." ALYSSA SCHUKAR/THE WORLD-HERALD

More than anything, I enjoyed getting to know some fellow Nebraskans whose life experiences have been so different from mine. I learned a great deal from my conversations with the ranchers and their families, and I appreciated how much these ranchers depend on their friends and neighbors.

The Jim Morris Ranch has been in the family for close to 120 years, so I spoke with Kelly Morris about how this life has been sustainable for her family.

Miles Stoner of Wood Lake enjoys the company of other ropers, including Ted Hilderhoff of Wood Lake, at left, as the sun comes up during a branding at the Burdick Ranch south of Wood Lake, Neb., on Saturday, April 21, 2012. ALYSSA SCHUKAR/THE WORLD-HERALD

“Everybody pulls together … to sell beef. And that’s how we all make our living, and it’s a simple, clean life,” she said. “Yeah, it’s hard work, but, you know, these old boys don’t know anything different. They don’t know the hustle and bustle and traffic and this and that and whatever. All they know is cattle and grass.”

Branding requires the cooperation of the entire community. As Ben Burdick, seen below, put it,  ”We run a thousand cows,” he said. “If you didn’t have help, you couldn’t operate.”

Ben Burdick holds his great-grandsons, Trevor Burdick, 3, at left, and Mason Burdick, 2, before posing for a family picture after lunch at the Burdick Ranch south of Wood Lake, Neb. on Saturday, April 21, 2012. The Burdick family, now with four generations working the land, credit their branding success to neighbors and hire hands. ALYSSA SCHUKAR/THE WORLD-HERALD

A young calf is branded to identify it as part of the Burdick Ranch south of Wood Lake, Neb., on Saturday, April 21, 2012. ALYSSA SCHUKAR/THE WORLD-HERALD

The two days I spent on the ranches were a wonderful escape from the city life that Kelly Morris spoke of, and I’m glad I was able to catch a glimpse of their lives.

She put it best: “You can’t find better people that’ll work together for the same thing. It might not be their cattle, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the end goal, and the strength of the community and people, you don’t find much of that nowadays. And it’s pretty nice out here. We still have it. We’re all a big family.”

Holden Mundorf, 8, of Wood Lake takes an opportunity to sleep on his father, Mark Mundorf, at center, shortly after sunrise with Mark Stoner of Wood Lake, at left, at the start of the branding of close to 600 calves at the Jim Morris Ranch south of Wood Lake, Neb., on Sunday, April 22, 2012. ALYSSA SCHUKAR/THE WORLD-HERALD

And for those wondering, yes, I did pitch in and wrestle a calf.

Alyssa Schukar

About Alyssa Schukar

I have been a staff photojournalist at the Omaha World-Herald since September 2008. I'm from Lincoln and am a 2006 graduate of the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Previously, I worked as an assistant at Malone and Co., a commercial photography studio in Omaha. My favorite pictures are those that give insight on the life of an individual or family because I understand the world better through the experiences of the people I meet. It's always humbling to be allowed such intimate access. My most challenging assignments come in many forms. Funerals, especially those of soldiers, always are emotionally draining, but I try to approach people with respect and dignity. In my time at the paper, I have covered a wide variety of assignments, including the Nebraska and Iowa National Guard's deployments in Afghanistan, Husker football at home and away, portraits of wigs big and small, rodeo queen competitions and intimate views of everyday life and love. Follow me on twitter @OWHalyssa.
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  1. Grant Baker says:

    Beautiful! Your use of light is striking in this set. Can’t stop looking at these!

  2. Greg Petersen says:

    I was surprised this morning when my wife called me and said that my cousin’s ranch was in the paper. Jim Morris is my cousin nice article and pictures about people coming together to help each other year after year.

  3. Abhi Buch says:

    When we lived in Santa Ynez, Santa Barbara County in California, our neighbors farmed alfalfa and ran about 800 cattle in open range land. Come branding time, it was like a big Ramada, with neighbors and hires pitching in. Late evening after the last calf was branded, a huge fire pit barbeque got every one singing an dancing. My contribution was an occasional stint on a roping horse and playing cowboy songs on a harmonica! Great way of life, real community and neighborliness. Some of the youngsters camped out overnight under the stars to guard the corralled calves from coyotes. They took that task seriously, as coyotes were not an idle threat.

  4. Amy Cunningham says:

    Great series Alyssa! Love the ranch lifestyle, wish I could get out of the citylife and back to real life.

  5. Alyssa,

    Great photos and a great images of the people and the lifestyle. Having grown up working at brandings it brings back happy memories (and a few aches! )

  6. Thanks for the comments, everyone! As I said above, I really enjoyed the experience and can only hope to get to do it again one day!

  7. [...] Pretty cool for a big city paper to acknowledge its state’s western roots. Be sure to check out photographer Alyssa Schukar’s photo blog to enjoy the view! Some truly awesome shots! Share [...]

  8. [...] Alyssa Schukar shows how it takes a helping hand to brand cattle.  To read about her experience, click here. [...]

  9. [...] I dropped in during branding weekend at the Burdick Ranch in Cherry County in April. Ben Burdick and his family welcomed me [...]

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