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3 Tips for a stress-free branding meal.

3 tips for a stress free branding meal. Strategies that work for any large crowd.

If you are new to cooking, it may look daunting to get a big meal ready all by yourself! I thought I would share some strategies I use for stress-free cooking for a crowd!

I have been cooking for a ranch crew several times a year (or more) for more than ten years. I have learned some things that help me keep my sanity! 😀 


I like to run out and take pictures while the cowboys are branding or shipping, and I can’t do that if my meal is helter-skelter and I am stressed out! So, I learned to prep the right way. These tips also work for other large-group meals. This is also how I manage church functions with very low stress. 

3 tips for a stress-free branding meal. Works for any large crowd

1. Plan ahead. 

If you take away nothing else – please, please, please plan ahead! This one tip will help you tremendously. If you know what needs done, you won’t get caught off guard. 

  • Menu. Write it all out. Even if it is just boughten cookies or jugs of tea. Next, write down everything besides food that you will need. Paper plates, garbage bags, napkins, plasticware, toothpicks, salt & pepper shakers, cream for the coffee? 
  • Groceries. Now, figure out what ingredients you will need for each dish. Write down everything you will need to buy. Make sure you figure enough! 
  • Time. Check recipes, and figure out how long you will need to cook each dish. If you are making meat and rolls and cake and potatoes and baked beans… do you have two ovens? What order will you bake them? Can you use a crockpot for something? You need to figure this out now, because there is nothing worse than needing to put rolls in the oven, but your meat has the oven busy all morning!

3 tips for a stress-free branding meal, works for any large crowd.

2. Prep the day before.

This is my biggest secret to a restful branding meal! I normally prep as much as possible the previous day. In fact, I try not to plan anything else the day before, so I can just prepare all the food! Trust me, you will not regret spending several hours the previous day! It makes branding day so much easier, and you will be less likely to get in a jam. (remember the oven cramming?)

  • Peel potatoes. If you are making a potato casserole, make it and have it ready for the oven. Or have your baked potatoes scrubbed and wrapped. You can make mashed potatoes and then reheat the following day, also. (Although – sometimes I just want those fresh, fluffy mashed potatoes. :) )
  • Cook your meat. I like to cook roasts slow overnight. It really frees up my oven and – bonus! – makes the roast fork-tender. Almost any meat can be cooked the day before and reheated. The exceptions would be prime rib and burgers. If you are doing pulled meat sandwiches, you can just shred and reheat on branding day. So easy!
  • Make your dessert. Bake your dessert the day before. If you want it warm-from-the-oven, you can still get it ready. For cobbler, I make the crumbs and put them in a ziploc bag, and get the fruit ready. Then you just have to assemble it right before baking. Pie crusts can be made and refrigerated overnight, filling can be made, etc. If nothing else – at least make sure your butter is sitting out overnight so it is soft the next day. If you want to bake your dessert the day of branding, be sure you have time to fit it in with your other oven dishes!
  • Chop salad veggies. Most salads you can prep the day before. Just wait to add dressing till you are ready to serve. Chopping veggies for salad is messy, and this helps keep your kitchen cleaner on branding day!
  • Thaw frozen things. Do you need to thaw vegetables? Fruit for cobbler? At a bare minimum, you need to get your meat out and let it thaw! 
3 tips for a stress-free branding meal, works for any crowd

The branding crew, Chugwater, WY. May 2016

3. Get up early.

I know – who wants to get up early?! (Well me, but I know most people don’t enjoy mornings! :) ) But if you want to have a smooth branding meal, you need to get up at a reasonably early hour. Maybe your man doesn’t want to eat at 5 am, but mine does, so I cook him breakfast. Sometimes I let him eat cereal, but I try to make him breakfast. Then I get started on my day.

  • Start your snack. If you will be taking a snack/coffee break to the crew, you need to make sure that is done first. Are you making cinnamon rolls? Get the dough mixed up to rise. Do you need to bake or make anything? Get it going. 
  • Check your meat. If you had a roast in the oven overnight, you need to check it first thing. Probably as early as 5 or 6 am. If it is done, take it out and let it rest. It can cool for an hour or so, while you start your snack, then you can slice or shred it.
  • Set your table. IF you have the room, get your tables set up for lunch. Set out the plates, cups, etc. Fill the water jugs. Put out butter to soften. Salt and pepper. Toothpicks. Chairs. Get a garbage can ready for all the trash.  Think about the flow… where will the guys come in? Where will they file through to get their food? Make it as easy as possible for them to go from door to sink to food to table. And PLEASE have a big towel by the sink for their hands! I can’t abide little wet rags to ‘dry’ my hands on! 😉 (pet peeve)
  • Get drinks ready. Water is perfectly fine, but whatever you have to drink – have plenty! Especially out West here, we get so dried out! Those hard-working cowboys are going to need lots to drink. 

These tips have served me well for feeding groups of cowboys – as few as 8 to as many as 30. I use the exact same strategy for feeding a church group of 200 or more. Yes, I have made mistakes, and you might, too. Cowboys are generally pretty forgiving of us cooks, as long as we have plenty of food! I appreciate that. 😀
Whether you are cooking for branding, processing, or shipping, you can follow these tips for a relaxing, stress-free meal. 

If you need some inspiration, check out these cookbooks! They are some of my favorite! Beautiful photos and fun stories throughout. 

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Don’t help with fall processing if you are pregnant.

A Ranch Mom: Processing yearling calvesThe sun shone weakly through the clouds, but the sharp west wind blew all the warmth away before it reached the ground where I was standing. I pulled my gloves on, and then turned to the car where my kids were waiting.

“OK, kids,” I said, “just play in the car, or, if you need something, I will be over there in the barn, OK? Just be careful of the calves when you walk through the corral – they might kick if you get to close to their legs.”
“OK, Mom,” Jenni agreed, picking up the crayons she had brought along.
I cracked open the windows, and then put the keys in my pocket. I wasn’t about to have them start the car, or anything crazy like that! I checked everything again – they had water, snacks, toys, blankets… they will be ok, I told myself, I can watch them easily.

But it was still hard. Hard to walk across the yard, and leave them there in the car. I was still paranoid from our recent loss. There is no water in the canal, I thought, there is no way for them to hurt themselves. Relax, Kay! Loosen up!

I flipped the latch up on the gate, and slid the bar back. The gate squealed as I pushed it open. I shut it and walked gingerly around blobs of cow manure. The wind blew cold on my neck, so I wrapped my wild rag tighter, and zipped up my coat as far as possible. I instinctively put my hand on my pregnant belly, as I looked over to the other side of the pen, where Cliff and Bill were working on the first batch of calves. I was a little late. Oh well. This shouldn’t take too long, I thought. I was here to help Cliff with the fall processing of yearlings.


A Ranch Mom: Processing yearling calves

I stepped into the lean-to part of the barn, and watched as Cliff quickly injected the bawling calf with a needle full of medicine. There was a slight sizzle as Bill pressed the red-hot branding iron against the side of the struggling animal. Smoke curled up, and when Bill removed the iron, there was a perfect brand on the hide. Cliff pulled some handles, and the chute clanked open. I moved aside as the calf bolted from the chute – bawling his frustration.

“What should I do?” I asked Cliff.
“You can keep the chute full. Come, I’ll show you .”
He led the way back to the holding pen, and showed me how to run 6-8 calves into the small round pen. The small round pen had a gate that could swing completely in, forcing the calves into the chute. Cliff handed me a paddle, and went back to front of the chute to work on the next one.

I waited while the guys worked on two more calves, then I prodded the rest of the calves in the chute up towards the front. There were several swinging doors in the chute, that only opened one way, so when the little animals were through, they couldn’t go backwards, they could only go forwards. They heard their buddies bawling, so they dug in their heels, and bacedk up. But the swinging doors kept them from backing through, and an occasional shock from Bill’s electric prod would send them into the front of the chute.

I walked back to the rest of the calves, all bunched in the corner of the alley. They just bunched together more, till they were almost climbing over top of each other. I gingerly prodded one calf, and sure enough, he kicked. High and fast. I yelled in alarm, and then shook my paddle at them. Little beads inside the paddle made a racket – designed to scare cattle, so the cowboys wouldn’t have to use their voices so much. It’s known as a rattle-paddle. The calves ignored the paddle, so I had to resort to poking and yelling at them.

A Ranch Mom: Processing yearling calves

I finally got one to run away from the huddle, then they all tried to follow him. I ran to the gate and nearly got run over when I tried to shut it in front of a barreling calf. I shook my rattle-paddle at it, and it galloped off, back to the corner. I went through the gate, then latched it.

Then I opened the gate to the little round pen, and tried to get them to run in there. Yeah. Right. They weren’t going anywhere near That Place. I ran around after them, shaking my rattle, and yelling.  Poking them when I thought I could do it without getting kicked. Finally, three calves ran into the pen, and I quickly slammed the gate behind them. I looked at the chute, and they were working on the last calf. Six calves while I rounded up three? This was not good. I will have to get faster than this if I want to keep up with them.
A Ranch Mom: Processing yearling calves
I jammed them as far forward in the chute as possible, and then ran back to the alley. I gritted my teeth, and took a deep breath. I shouted at the calves, and shook my rattle-paddle, and whacked them as hard as I could. They bunched up closer. I managed to get a small bunch to break away from the rest, and into the small pen, but despite my best efforts, Cliff had to come back and help me run them into the chute.

I was starting to pant, and my stomach was churning from the smell of burning hair. The wind was blowing the smoke and stench from the branding right through the lean-to and back to where I was working. It was a bad smell anytime, but my sensitive pregnant nose was nearly overcome. I felt like throwing up. I swallowed a few times, and willed my stomach to settle. I walked back to the end of the alley, trying to get as far away from the smell as I could. The smell was not so strong back there. Or maybe it was just overpowered by the rank odor of fresh cow poop. At least its a better smell, I thought.

“Mom?” Frank was climbing up the fence, straddling it he said; “I need to go to the bathroom.”
“There is a bathroom in the vet room. Go to Daddy, and he will show you where it is, OK?” I looked over to the car. Jenni’s head was visible in the car, but what caught my attention was the car itself. The wipers were flopping, the right turn signal was blinking, and the door was hanging open. Help us all, I thought. We are gonna have a dead battery soon. I clambered over the fence, and went to shut off the lights. I gave Jenni instructions about what her and Franklin were, and were not allowed to play with in the car.
A Ranch Mom: Processing yearllings

Back to the alley. Running. Shouting. Prodding. Waving my arms. Slamming the gate. Pushing the gate in the round pen as hard as possible, and then realizing that the calves were a lot stronger than I was, even if they were only a few months old. I got splattered with cow poop when one went right in front of me. I poked one, and the calf kicked so fast and close that I felt the air from its dirty hoof, as it came within millimeters of my hand. All the while, the stench of burning hair was floating out over me. The wind no longer felt cold. I was sweating. My stomach was churning. I was getting madder and madder at the calves. I would’ve kicked them if I hadn’t been so afraid of being kicked a lot harder in return. (kicking is not recommended – it was my first experience working calves, and I never knew how frustrating they can be! )

Finally, I managed to fill both the chute and the holding pen. So I went up and watched Cliff and Bill. They branded, ear tagged, and gave shots in a smooth rhythm. Never making one extra move, just doing everything in a efficient, calm way.
A Ranch Mom: Processing yearlings story. #fallworks
The afternoon had slipped away into evening before we finished.  I was bone-weary, my feet almost had blisters on them. The sun was sinking, and the wind was getting colder, as I walked slowly back to the car. All I could think about was a hot shower.

And bed.

I sat down in the car and smiled at my kids.

Written in 2010. 

5 meal ideas for the ranch crew.

Gathering cows

meal ideas

Do you need some meal ideas for the ranch crew? It’s easy to run out of ideas for meals, when you have to cook for a dozen or more hungry cowboys. Especially if you need to cook several days in a row!


I’ll be the first – and maybe only – one to say; I love cooking for the ranch crew! But even I run out of ideas. I get into a rut and then I hate my own cooking, haha! Thankfully, cowboys seem to be fine with the same foods over and over again.

I have been on ranches where they expect a feast: 1-2 kinds of meat, potatoes, several vegetables, several salads, several desserts, plus rolls and drinks.
Some ranches take a more relaxed route, and tend to have more normal fare; meat, a couple sides and a dessert.
My husband has told tales of ranches he’s helped on, where they served only a small sandwich or burrito and nothing else. Yikes!

But aside from the obvious; Have Plenty Of Food rule, I thought I’d share some of my favorite meals to make for the crew.
Cowboy throwing a loop

table full of food

Meal idea #1
BBQ Sandwiches
Chips
Watermelon
Baked Beans
Jello Cake

Meal idea #2
Roast Beef
Mashed potatoes
Corn casserole
Spinach salad
Pie with ice cream

Meal idea #3
Brisket
Cheesy potatoes
Green Beans
Layered salad
Cherry Cheesecake

plate of food prime rib

Prime rib!

Meal idea #4
Beefy Enchiladas
Spanish Rice
Refried Beans
Homemade Salsa + chips
Texas Sheet Cake

Meal idea #5
Stew (for cool fall days!)
Cornbread
Blueberry cobbler

prime rib branding food

NOTES & TIPS

~The brisket in Meal #3 can be done at home, or – if that intimidates you – you can buy it pre-cooked at Sam’s Club. They sell it already smoked and cured. It is really delicious!! All you have to do it put in the electric roaster (or oven) and warm it up. Super easy!

~I was nervous the first time I served stew, thinking it wasn’t fancy enough. But it was a cold day and the guys loved it! It was warm and filling. I am considering making it over the fire with my dutch ovens, this fall. 😀 Wouldn’t that be fun?

~Enchiladas are a bit different for this area. We are too far north for it to be a big thing. But my husband loves Spanish-style food, so I sneak it in there occasionally. :) The guys don’t seem to mind, as long as I have really good homemade salsa! 😉 I don’t make it more than maybe once per year, because they do like their potatoes.

I am thinking about putting together a book with all my ranch meals; menus, meats, sides, desserts, recipes, servings. Is that something that would be helpful to you? Let me know in the comments!

branding meal for the ranch crew

One of my favorite sights: the cowboys filling their plates after a hard day of work. Branding lunch with the Double 8 crew, 2017.

Branding potbranding iron

ranch crew eating lunch

The crew eating lunch at the Nimmo Ranch, 2016.

I hope this list has sparked some ideas in you for meals! Now, I have a favor to ask of you: Would you please comment with some of your favorite meals for the crew? Or any large-crowd recipe that you use and love? I’d appreciate it!

TA Branding 2017

Morning on the ranchThe TA is a ranch west of us, that hosts a large branding every year. They actually have several ranches – quite a good-sized outfit. We were able to make it over for one of their brandings this year.
Cliff and I loaded up at 4:30 and drove around the mountain to meet at the ranch at about 6 am. We were there early, and joined the long line of trucks and trailers lining up to park.

The sun wasn’t up yet, when we mounted up and rode down to get instructions. They divided us into 4 groups, and off we went. We trotted a couple miles to the back of the pasture, got behind the cattle and started moving them back towards the corrals. In this part of the country we don’t round up and drive. 
We gather and push.
As in: “We’re gonna gather this pasture, and push them to the green gate.”

We were close to the back of the pasture when we came to this deep wash. (or gully, if you’re from the east)
The far side was steeper than it looks in the photo. One guy broke a rein-chain, and we all stopped at the top to get situated, readjust saddles, etc. This is why we use breast collars – because if you don’t, your saddle may end up over the horse’s rump.
We rode a bit further and there they were – the cattle were already starting to move, thanks to another group of riders that had reached the back of the pasture first.
Morning on the ranchAs we got closer to the corrals, the sound of lowing cows and bawling calves grew louder. The circle of cowboys tightened gradually, until we were riding side by side and bunching up to go through the gate.
It was a lovely, overcast morning. Cold at first but warming without getting too hot.The scenery was amazing, and the remote location meant no sounds of traffic or other civilization. Just cowboys, cattle, and horses.Morning cattle drive roundup wyoming


Quite the long line of trucks…
Question: Do you say pickup or truck? I was having this conversation with a friend recently, and I hadn’t thought about it much, but now I pay attention…. and yes, we say truck! 😀 Or at least I do. I guess I need to listen to what other around here call them. I have lived so many places in my life that I never know if I am speaking local slang or just carryover from my childhood. :)
PS – extra points if you recognize our rig. 😉Cattle trailers trucks at the branding

Once we had all the cows and calves into the corral, we waited for them to pair up a bit while we got instructions. Well, they got instructions. I offered my help but since there were so many people, the boss told me to just go take pictures. (Thank you Mr. Haskell!)Waiting at the TA branding

Firm handshakes 'round here.

Firm handshakes ’round here.

Oklahoma buckaroo Cody  holds a calf while it gets a brand.

Oklahoma buckaroo Cody holds a calf while it gets a brand.

 

Janet Jordan from Walden, CO throws a nice loop out there.

Janet Jordan from Walden, CO throws a nice loop out there.

Roping calves at the TA Cowgirl roping at the TA Funny cow photo heading and heeling at the TA Branding cowboy at the TA Branding calf in sagebrush cowgirl roping John Love roping at the TA Jed Roark and John Love roping at the TA Cliff Schrock roping at the TA Cody Roy roping at the TAThere were 800+ calves that day. They gathered, roped, and branded them by 11:00 am. There were two branding pots set up, and lots of ropers! Still, that’s pretty impressive. I had so much fun photographing them. Hope you enjoyed this little piece of western life. :)

Branding calves with friends.

Wyoming Cowgirl roping Branding season is upon us, and it is great! Warmer weather, lots of friends, and of course, roping – if you’re into that sort of thing. 😉

We went to our first branding on May 6, and had a great time. There was quite a crowd to help out, and we got to catch up with lots of friends. Some I hadn’t seen since last year.
Wyoming cowboy roping wyoming cowboy roping wyoming young cowboy  branding in wyoming Red angus calves Heel trap at a branding in wyoming cowboys at a wyoming branding cowboy and branding irons cowboy roping at a branding

The older kids rode along and Jenni even roped a couple calves. I kept the two little ones with me, and we came later, helped with the food, and played with friends. :)


I did enlist my teens to check on  the sleeping toddler while i snuck in the pen and grabbed a few closer photos. It is hard for me to get in there and get the shots I want – I am always afraid I will be in the way, ha! ranch kids playing at a wyoming ranch Cowboy branding

I have been so stinkin’ busy with the spring rush, that I just haven’t taken much time to write. I have been working in my garden and taking care of kiddos… I will write a garden update in a few days or weeks, haha!

Branding at the Esh Ranch.

A few weeks ago, we drove to CO to help a friend brand his calves. We took several friends along to help rope. My husband enjoyed it more because it was a head & heel branding. We are kinda partial to the buckaroo style. :)

I am leaving this as a photo post, hope you enjoy!

Early morning in the horse barn.

Early morning in the horse barn.

Waiting for their turn in the branding pen.

Waiting for their turn in the branding pen.

Branding at the Esh ranchBranding at the Esh ranch

Head and heels...

Head and heels…

There were several young boys who had never been at a branding before. They enjoyed setting ropes and just holding calves.

There were several kids who had never been at a branding before. They enjoyed setting ropes and just holding calves.

Branding smoke.

Branding smoke.


Branding at the Esh ranchBranding at the Esh ranchBranding at the Esh ranchBranding at the Esh ranchBranding at the Esh ranch

Owner and branding boss.

Owner and branding boss.

Cowgirl and city girl. Great friends! :)

Cowgirl and city girl. Great friends! :)

Branding near Wheatland.

We went to help our friends brand calves yesterday. Cliff loaded up the horses and older kids and left by 5:30 am. I woke the little ones and fed & dressed them and followed in the suburban by 6 am. (We can’t all fit in the truck, so I had to drive separate.) It was a gorgeous morning, sun rising through a bit of clouds and into a clear sky.

branding

By the time I reached the ranch, the cowboys were almost done gathering the cattle. The lane runs through the pasture, so I was surrounded by cowhands at one point. It always feels a bit like I’m living in a western movie set, when I see cowboys riding down the hills on either side of me. :) Never gets old.

Looking for strays.

Looking for strays.


The wind wasn’t too bad, thankfully, so the baby didn’t have to gasp for breath. 😉 Babies just don’t appreciate this Wyoming wind much. I strapped him in the stroller, and assigned an older kid to keep track of Reata while I ducked around horses and cowboys to take as many pictures as I could. I knelt in some questionable damp stuff with my new jeans – yuck. And I was awash in branding smoke most of the time, but I did get a couple of nice ones, in between feeding and changing the baby, and getting him to sleep.

My 3 older kids.

My 3 older kids.

branding

Brandings are a favorite time of year for most ranchers. We reconnect with friends and neighbors – some we haven’t seen since last year’s branding! We share jokes and tips and stories of the past year. We gather for a huge feast afterwards, always a highlight! Yesterday they served prime rib, which is a very delicious cut of meat. Most of the time if a fellow ranch wife comes to a branding, she will bring a dish to add to the table… a pie or salad or some rolls. It is not required, but always appreciated.

Cowboygirl.

Cowboygirl.

Dragging to the fire.

Dragging to the fire.

Cliff and Jenni wrestled calves a while.

Cliff and Jenni wrestled calves a while.

And remember, calves hide (skin) is ‘way thicker than yours, so branding them is not nearly as painful as it would be for you. 😉 And besides that, it is required by law.

branding

Jane Grove branding.

Jane Grove branding.

branding

Branding