Excellent work: Local ranchers say youth branding crew does a fantastic job

High school students provide the “guns” –the muscle –to wrestle calves in rural areas where there are fewer young people to help brand.

A group of hard working kids from Custer County, Nebraska, are having fun, and putting some cash in their pockets at the same time.

The Seven Valleys Branding crew is hiring out after school and on weekends to help area ranchers and farmers brand their cattle.

The branding crew usually wrestles calves, but will do any job asked, including heeling calves.

This year, the group includes nine kids: sixth grader Carleigh Laible; seventh grader Delaynie Laible; freshmen Talon Crago and Owen Stallbaumer; sophomore Dalton Kunkee; juniors Kalie Glendy and Trevor Ross; and seniors Weston Kunkee and Gavin Robertson. They hail from the Nebraska communities of Callaway, Oconto, Arnold, and ranches in between.

The Seven Valleys branding crew includes 3 girls.

As of early May, the crew had worked twenty brandings, nearly every day of the week. On school days, as soon as school is out, they head to their pickups and go to brand. Their weekends are full, too.

The word about the crew has spread like wildfire, said Weston Kunkee, one of the original crew members. “It started out small,” he said. “We went to a few, and now we have a whole bunch of people calling us.” Even though they want to work as many as they can, school activities hinder their schedule. As school winds down, there are plenty of honors and awards banquets to attend. “As much as it sucks, we’ve had to turn people down,” Kunkee said. “We get busy, and sometimes we have to say, ‘we can’t go this night’ because we have a school event.”

The crew stays close to home and has worked brandings in the Custer County area: Callaway, Oconto, Lexington, Broken Bow, Merna, and Arnold. The farthest they’ve gone so far is thirty miles north of Thedford, which is a two and a half hour drive from Callaway. This year, they’ll brand in Nenzel, along Highway 20 near Valentine. Weston and his brother Dalton are high school rodeo members, and word about the crew has spread among the rodeo people. The rodeo dads “will even ask if we can help them.”

The Seven Valleys crew, which had t-shirts and caps made specially with their name, fills a niche, said Greg Johnson, at whose place the crew branded a few weeks ago. “It’s a great idea,” he said. “It’s handy for us. My kids are grown and gone, and the neighbors’ kids are gone.”

He loves the quality of work they do. “They’re so very particular on how they do it. We have them check for horns on my crossbred cattle, and make sure the calves get all their shots. We wouldn’t have them if they weren’t good.”

The crew mainly wrestles calves; other helpers at brandings vaccinate and castrate. They’ll sometimes rope and drag, if it’s needed.

The side benefits of branding –the food – are good, too. They’ve been fed burgers, brisket sandwiches, cheesy potatoes, and at Johnson’s branding, prime rib and ribs. Johnson, who lives southwest of Oconto, runs a catering business. “I know what it’s like to work hard, and when you work hard, you get hungry. We thought, these kids are working their butts off so we’ll feed them good and pay them. And they’re always anxious to come back.”

Desserts are plentiful, too, said Dalton Kunkee, Weston’s younger brother, but he doesn’t always eat them. “Sometimes I don’t find my way to the dessert table, because I’m too full.”

They sometimes catch flack from their classmates, who are running track or doing other school activities, said Weston. The branding crew throws it back at them. “We always tease the track kids at school,” he said. “We say, ‘why don’t you go run for fun, because we’re going to get paid for what we love to do.” Last year, before a pep rally for track athletes going to state, the branding crew got their chance to rib them. The track athletes “were walking down the hallway, and we got in line behind them and started chanting, ‘branding team.’ People were laughing.”

The group even came up with some informal “rules” that were printed on the back of their t-shirts. They include 1. Don’t be late. 2. Tail over rope. 3. Don’t let go. 4. Cover the butt. 5. Pig out. 6. Shake the head honcho’s hand before you leave, and 7. Don’t look at your check until after you leave.

The Seven Valleys branding crew is a group of nine junior high and high school students, mainly from the Callaway, Neb. area, who hire out to help wrestle and rope calves at local brandings. From left to right, back row: Dalton Kunkee, Trevor Ross, Owen Stallbaumer, Gavin Robertson, and Weston Kunkee. Front row: Carleigh Laible, Delaynie Laible, Kalie Glendy, and Talon Crago. 7 rules back of t-shirts: On the backs of the Seven Valleys branding crew t-shirts are the seven ÒrulesÓ the group works by. Courtesy photos

Johnson, like the other ranchers and farmers, appreciates the crew’s help. “They’re not good help, they’re great help. They’re just great kids, polite, respectful, and they come from great families. They were taught to be that way. They get right down to work. They’re not afraid of work whatsoever.

“They’re excellent, excellent help. They do their job. That’s the main thing. What more can you ask for?”

High school students provide the ÒgunsÓ Ðthe muscle Ðto wrestle calves in rural areas where there are fewer young people to help brand.