The practice of identifying livestock to prove ownership, which dates to ancient Europe and came to the New World with the Spaniards, continues today in the form of brands.
The esoteric symbols used in cattle branding are known in the trade as a head of livestock’s return address. It identifies the home ranch, not the owner.
Members of the La Plata-Archuleta Cattlemen’s Association use more than 100 brands. The Brand Inspection Division of the state Department of Agriculture administers almost 35,000 brands.
Brand inspectors are kept on the move, said Colorado brand commissioner Chris Whitney.
“We have 60 inspectors who travel 1 million miles a year to cover 104,000 square miles of territory,” Whitney said. “We make 4.2 million inspections of cattle annually.”
Brands have to be inspected when cattle are moved 75 miles or more within the state, if they’re transported out of state and whenever there’s a change of ownership, Whitney said.
Inspections simply assure that cattle belong to whom the brand indicates or that transactions are correct.
Branding can be done with a hot iron as seen in Western movies or by freeze branding. The latter method involves immersing the branding iron in liquid nitrogen and then applying it to the animal.
When a new brand is requested, the Brand Inspection Division searches its records, checking the requested design against existing ones.
The current cost to register a brand was set in 2012 – $275 for five years. A brand registered in 2014 costs a $50 initiation fee, plus a pro-rated share of $275.
Barbara Jefferies, a past president of the La Plata-Archuleta Cattlemen’s Association, said brands reflect an owner’s imagination and that some have interesting histories.
Brice Lee, who ranches in the Breen area, recovered in the 1980s a brand registered 100 years earlier by his great-grandfather E.L. Osborn in Montrose.
“After he died about 1927, the brand wasn’t used, and the fees weren’t paid,” Lee said. “We had to pay back fees, which weren’t much, but we had to go through four estates before we got the brand in our name.”
Brands – combinations of letters and symbols – originally consisted of one character. But as the number of users increased, brands became two characters and later three characters.
Multiple-character brands are read from left to right, top to bottom or outside to inside.
As examples: TL is pronounced as it’s written: Bar T is a straight line over a T; Box T is a square box enclosing a T.
Brice Lee’s brand that belonged to his ancestor is the Turkey Track Bar – a three-pronged foot over a straight line.
Lee has another brand through his late wife’s family – the Quarter Circle Lazy J.
The reasoning behind brands can be logical; other choices of names can only be guessed at.
Brands are registered to a particular person, Jefferies said. But old-time cowboys would say they rode for such-and-such a brand, not the owner, she said.
“Brand owners take a lot of pride in their brand,” Jefferies said. “Some brand owners simply use them on the entrance gate to their ranch.”
Jefferies said she learned from the state brand inspection office that only 72 percent of ranchers who paid brand assessments in 2012 actually used them on cattle.
The Brand Inspection Division is funded totally by the livestock industry from brand assessments and inspection fees. Its annual budget is about $4.2 million to cover salaries, travel expenses and administrative costs.
Branding helps reduce livestock theft by making ownership visible. Inspectors check ownership through brand books.
Despite such safeguards, livestock theft is increasing. The last three years for which numbers are available show 66 incidents in 2010 involving 331 head; 74 incidents in 2011 involving 829 head; and 82 incidents in 2012 involving 765 head.
The livestock industry formed what became the Brand Inspection Division in 1865. The service became a state agency in 1903 and came under the Department of Agriculture in the 1970s.