by Kristin Hawkins
Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association
Fire branding livestock has been used since ancient times to prove ownership because it works, said Larry Gray, head of law enforcement for Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA).
“Branding is one of the best ways to track down lost or stolen animals. Ear tags can be lost or removed by a thief, but an animal carrying a unique brand or mark is easily and permanently identifiable and traceable,” he said.
A century ago, branding was a necessity for many ranchers because much of ranching country was open range. There were few fenced pastures and a lot of confusion when your cattle mixed with your neighbors’. The brand was the only way to prove your cattle were yours. Those days may be gone, but the reasons for needing a brand on livestock haven’t changed. Fences mean little to a bull with his mind set on being somewhere else or to a thief with bolt cutters.
However, a brand is no good if it’s not registered with the proper authorities. There is no statewide brand registry; brands must be registered at the county clerk’s office in the county where the livestock are kept for it to be considered a legal means of ownership.
“We use brands in our criminal investigations on local, state and federal cases of theft or fraud,” Gray said. Brands are also used by state and national animal health agencies for disease traceability, by agricultural lending institutions to secure livestock loans and by county sheriff offices to determine ownership of stray livestock. Judges and attorneys also reference brands in many types of civil litigations involving livestock.
TSCRA special rangers serve as licensed peace officers commissioned through the Texas Department of Public Safety or the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, investigating approximately 1,000 agricultural crime cases each year. They also recover an average of $5 million in stolen cattle and assets for ranchers annually.
TSCRA’s market inspectors aid the special rangers by collecting brands and other identifying marks on four to five million cattle sold at the more than 100 Texas livestock markets each year.
[pullquote width=”300″ float=”left”]“Branding is one of the best ways to track down lost or stolen animals. Ear tags can be lost or removed by a thief, but an animal carrying a unique brand or mark is easily and permanently identifiable and traceable.”[/pullquote]
Market inspectors report their findings to TSCRA’s Fort Worth headquarters where the information is entered into the nation’s largest brand recording and retrieval system. This digital database is the first source checked when a special ranger receives a theft call. Gray observed that the odds of recovering lost or stolen cattle are greatly improved if those cattle are branded.
“If a cow with a brand is sold at a livestock market, we’ll have a record of it,” Gray said. “Being able to use something as reliable as a brand to track an animal through the system is a valuable asset to everyone from the owner through the markets and on to law enforcement. It cuts down on investigation time and resources. Without a brand to go on, it can sometimes be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.”
And branding isn’t just for cattle. Texas Agriculture Code covers the branding of cattle, hogs, horses, sheep and goats. It also includes brands made by fire and freeze branding, a method of marking an animal’s hide using a branding iron chilled with a coolant such as liquid nitrogen. Freeze branding prompts the animal’s hair to grow back white where the brand was applied.
The best way to ensure your cattle stay yours is to put your mark on them. Brand livestock, and make sure that brand is recorded with the county clerk.
How to read a brand
- Brands are read from left to right, from the top down or from the outside to the inside.
- If a letter or symbol is made backwards from its normal position, it’s read as a reverse.
- If a letter lies horizontally on its face or back, it is called lazy.
- Letters with a curving flare at the top and rounded angles are called running.
- Adding a dash to the left and right of a letter, at the top, is called a flying letter.
- Add legs and it’s a walking letter.
- Curves not attached to letters are known as quarter circles or half circles depending on the arc.
- A letter placed so the bottom touches a quarter circle is said to be rocking.
- Letters or symbols formed together are called connected, except when one is below the other. In that case, the lower symbol is said to be swinging or hanging.
- In addition to the traditional letter and figure brands, there are marks known as character or picture brands such as turtles, keys, spades and ladders.
- The brand location is as important as the brand itself. The same brand may be registered in the same county as long as the location on the animal is different.