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Round-Up Time in South Dakota

  • Jim Kent

Members of a South Dakota ranching family gathered outside Rapid City recently to take part in a tradition that dates back five generations - the annual roundup and branding of the Kammerer clan's cattle herd.

It's roundup time on the "K reverse K" ranch in western South Dakota. Time to gather the herd, brand the calves and do your best not to get kicked. On a warm spring morning, Matt Kammerer and his crew start rounding up several hundred head of cattle on land that's been in the family for more than a century. Matt's father, Marv, looks forward to this tradition every year. "It's a time for just kind of a renewal," he says, adding "[the] kids are learning the trade and some of 'em are damn good at it! They'll share a meal together and drink a few beers and just enjoy the gift of rural family life."

As several generations of Kammerers ride out toward the herd, Marv gestures toward a double line of parked trucks. "Some of them fellers went out there and they're parking their trailers and it'll make kind of a fence," he explains. "When they bring the cattle in, it'll just kind of help guide them into the corral there that they got built up back there. And you can see the riders and nephews and grandkids and grandnephews and their dads, and the daughters are heading out to gatherin'."

Moving the herd in from the pasture is no easy feat, but an hour later, all the cows and calves have been corralled, and the next phase of the round up begins. "Right now they're sorting mother cows from the calves," Marv says, "so that's when they get the calves sorted off, then we'll light up the fires and unlimber the ropes and the kids'll go in there horseback and drag the calves to the fire and the wrestlers are waiting for them."

Sorting mother cows from their calves isn't taken well by the cows, who gather around the corral baying their objections.

About the only thing that's not done the traditional way is the branding fire. The Kammerer clan uses a propane stove to heat the "K reverse K" outfit's branding irons, because, as Marv explains, it's easier than keeping a fire going. Then it's time to hold down those calves and permanently mark their hides.

It's a hot, dusty day as several teams of wrestlers bring 170 calves to the ground to be held while they're branded. The smell of burning hide is punctuated by the cries of the calves. Marv's nephew, Mitch, is in charge of the branding. He says no one likes causing the calves discomfort, but it has to be done to protect everyone involved. With current concerns over the origin of meat, he explains, it helps protect the rancher as well as the consumer. "It's a different kind of world, it's a different way of life. A lot of people don't understand. It's necessary, yes it is. You've gotta have a brand."

As the midday sun beats down on the last calves to be branded, Marv Kammerer's granddaughter, Amanda, notes that the process is always a long one. "This is the second branding I've been to and you get sore after. I mean, you get sore pretty much after every one, 'cause you might get kicked or something at that one, or... so, you get sore." But she expects to continue in the family business. "I hope to, like, get a cowherd built up, then ranch. I mean, without cows, America wouldn't have beef."

Once the day's chores are completed, and the horses watered, it's time for a hearty ranch meal, a few beers, and a little reflection. "My great-grandfather showed up here in 1882," Matt Kammerer says, looking back on his family's long history in the Black Hills. "Every generation since then has lived on this place. That's the lifestyle I grew up knowing. Ain't nothing better I'd like to teach my kids." As he watches his family around the table, the emotion is obvious on his face, and his voice cracks a bit. "[They're] just trying their hearts out to please ya' and to do a good job and you can't say the pride that I have for them."

After dinner, it's time to enjoy the cool evening air, a few jokes, and some tall tales. But there's no exaggerating the plans for the next roundup, which will take place again next spring, as it has every year, for more than a century.