Smoke spiraled up from the branding iron as third-grader Trent Trask pressed it hard into the wood.
Each of his classmates from Soda Creek Elementary School took a turn, proudly holding up their pieces as mementos of their lessons at Matt and Christy Belton's ranch Friday.
"I've been to a lot of places, but I've never gotten to do that," Trent said. "It's really a cool experience."
The students' visit to the Belton's Steamboat Springs ranch was the finale to Ranch Days, a weeklong unit about agriculture and ranching in Routt County.
Elementary students from Yampa, Hayden and Steamboat Springs have alternated weeks this month learning about topics from noxious weeds and home arts to the "life of a steak" from the ranch to the grocery store.
"That was one that was requested by teachers -- how agriculture relates to every kid in the county," said Jeannie Jo Logan, who coordinated guest speakers and ranch visits for the program.
Logan is a member of Routt County CattleWomen, which helped initiate Ranch Days about 10 years ago.
Soda Creek students experienced Ranch Days in conjunction with units about Routt County history.
"It's hard to teach history with paper and books," Soda Creek teacher Susan Barnes said while watching the students' wide-eyed reaction to branding. "This brings it alive for them."
The Beltons were among several ranch owners who helped introduce students to ranching life.
In addition to learning about livestock -- some students had never been so close to a cow or horse -- the students also learned what it takes to run a ranch, Barnes said.
"Most kids have no clue," said Matt Belton, who told the students the ranch keeps him busy year-round.
In the summer, he works with irrigation and harvesting hay. In the winter, he's feeding cattle. And in the spring, he gets up in the middle of the night to tend new calves.
"There are no days off," he said. "It never ends."
"I think it would be hard work, and there's only two people at this ranch," said third-grader Evan Weinman, who recalled the Beltons feeds their cattle 1,200-pound bales of hay in the winter.
The economics of ranching and how ranchers make their living on agriculture also wasn't lost on some students.
"They were a lot more knowledgeable than I thought they'd be," said Dave Burns of Strawberry Farms River Ranches, who on Thursday introduced the children to Nora, a Scottish Highlander cow, and her calf.
Earlier in the week, a student quizzed Burns about how many cattle he had on the ranch and the market price for each animal.
"It was like he had a calculator in his head. ... You could see him working it all out," Burns said.
Hayden fourth-graders and fourth- and fifth-graders from Christian Heritage School completed Ranch Days last week. Fourth-graders from South Routt Elementary School will participate in the activities next week.