The History of Cattle Brands and How to Read Them

The use of brands as a mark of identification dates back some 4,000 years. Inscriptions on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs indicate that cattle were branded as early as 2000 B.C. 

The American custom of cattle branding was adopted from Mexico. The large Mexican cattle ranches marked their herds with their family coat-of-arms and, as the cattle industry moved northward into Texas, this method of indicating ownership gradually became accepted by American ranchers.

Today there are hundreds of thousands of cattle brands registered in the United States. When a rancher decides upon the type of brand he wants to use, the legal procedure is to register his mark. State laws designate a brand inspector or similar official who is responsible for assigning and recording brands. In some states registration must be made with the county clerk in each county or counties where the rancher expects to operate. This makes it possible for men in different parts of the country to use the same brand, although the reading of the brand may differ from one locality to another.

At one time, there were no fences in the vast West. And even today much of the cattle area is "open range." Cattle wander far in grazing, herds become mingled. The roundup permits separation of each owner's stock, and because calves always follow their mother, the ownership of unbranded calves is easily determined. The annual spring roundup has as its principal purpose the finding and branding of the past year’s calf crop.

The Branding Iron

In the infant days of the cattle industry, ranchers used large, outsized brands that nearly covered an animal's entire body. Later, when cattle hides began to bring a good price, this practice gave way to the smaller, carefully forged stamping iron that left a neat, easy-to-read mark—usually on the left hip or high on the left ribs.

The legibility of a brand depends a great deal on the cowboy applying it and on the type of iron used. The best branding irons are made from high-quality metal, one-half to one inch thick, with the face drawn and beveled to a width of about one-quarter of an inch. Letters and symbols are usually about four inches high and the handle ordinarily measures about 36 inches.

The brand is applied with a grey-hot iron, about the color of the branding fire ashes. A red-hot iron produces an over burned brand—often resulting in sores which may become infected. Cattle are never branded when hides are damp, as this causes a scalded or blotched mark.

How Calves are Branded

Branding is usually done during roundup time. Unmarked calves are cut out of the herd by a horseman, roped and brought to the fire where the irons are being heated. Two cowboys, called flankers, approach the calf on foot. One seizes the calf by the foreleg and flank, pulls the animal off balance and throws it to the ground. He then places his knee on the calf's neck and pulls up and back on the foreleg. His partner grasps the uppermost hind leg, pulls it back and at the same time places his foot on the hind leg next to the ground. The calf is then in position for branding.

The hot branding iron is then placed momentarily on the calf's hide. The burn is not painful—the bawling of the calf is caused mostly by fear of the unusual.

After branding, the calves, with the rest of the herd that are not cut out for marketing or for shipment to feeder lots, are turned back into the open range, the owner secure in the protection of his property by the traditional sanctity of the brand.