Dr. Taylor Woods recalls a time when a cattle brand helped defuse a tense situation. Two southern Missouri livestock producers claimed ownership of the same cattle. Woods, a large-animal veterinarian and now head of the Missouri Department of Agriculture's Animal Health Division, was asked to settle the dispute. He could tell that tempers were on edge as soon as he arrived.
Although both men had been clients and he knew their herds, Woods' job was not to determine who owned the cows. He only needed to "read" the brand and offer his expert opinion of what the symbols seared into the hide of the animals was supposed to represent.
"I got there and both of the guys were standing there with their .30-30 rifles over their shoulders," says Woods. "I got out my clippers and shaved the hair back on one of the cows. I read the brand and one fella put down his rifle and said, 'I could have sworn those were my cows.'"
Though hardly worthy of a Western range war movie, Woods' experience highlights the value of marking livestock for identification. Branding has helped establish ownership of livestock for thousands of years. In fact, it is such a long-held practice that the walls of Egyptian tombs bear pictures of oxen being branded. The Ancient Greeks and Romans branded livestock, as well as indentured servants. During the cattle drives of the Old West, drovers allowed branded stock to mingle on the range and later separated the herds at market.
Today, branding continues to provide a way for livestock owners to identify their cattle, though methods have changed somewhat. Some ranchers still wrestle calves to the ground and sear a logo into their hides with a brand heated over an open fire. Typically, though, cattle are secured in a chute and the mark applied with an electric iron or they are "freeze branded" with a steel die cooled in dry ice.
Currently, there are more than 4,700 livestock brands registered in the state of Missouri. The Department of Agriculture is responsible for registering brands and prepares a directory, the "State of Missouri Brand Book", of these symbols along with the names and addresses of the producers who own them. The directory is supplied to every county recorder of deeds and every livestock market and processing plant in the state. An updated edition of the Brand Book will be distributed in coming weeks.
"With the reestablishment of the Missouri Livestock and Farm Protection Task Force last August by Governor Jay Nixon, the state has placed an increased emphasis on combating rural crime including livestock and farm equipment theft," says Jon Hagler, director of the Department of Agriculture. "Branding your stock and registering your brand with the Department of Agriculture provides a tool in the battle against thieves who prey on farmers. The Missouri Brand Book is an invaluable resource for law enforcement when they're presented with stolen or lost livestock."
Though necessary in the days of the open range, brands are somewhat less common today. Many producers find that ear tags and good fences minimize the need for permanently marking livestock. Others lack the equipment or cowboy expertise needed to apply brands. Still, some ranchers believe livestock brands serve the same purpose that logos and brand names do in modern merchandising. They provide instant recognition to a product line.
"Some of the big cattle operations, they want that brand recognition. It's a source of pride for them and an advertisement for their ranch," says Woods, who oversees the publication of the Brand Book. "When people look at a good bull, they see that brand on there and they know where it came from."
Prior to 1971, brands were registered by counties, so there's no reliable record of how long some brands have existed in Missouri. Woods believes that some brands have passed down through the same families since the late 19th century.
Although the Missouri Brand Book lacks the terse dialogue and riveting plot development of a Louis L'Amour paperback, it's still a fascinating read. It's hard to imagine so much creativity is possible with just 26 letters, 9 numerals and a few symbols.
Some of the brands registered in Missouri are simple – many just two letters – but each is written or arranged in a unique way. A letter on its side is "lazy." Scrunch two letters together and they become "connected." Place one over the other and they're "hanging." Add a short line between A and B and the brand becomes A-"bar"-B. Place a letter on top of a curved line and it's "rocking."
Brands are read just like a book: left to right, top to bottom. When something is inside something else, it reads from outside in, so the letter "R" placed inside a circle would be called "Circle R."
Some livestock owners get unusually clever with their names, adding symbols to make unique marks. The most creative brands include little pictures. You'll see crosses, fish, shamrocks, stars, spurs, trees, sunsets and even a couple of bunnies in the Missouri book.
In fact, many of the brands recorded in the Missouri Brand Book were never intended to be placed onto livestock. Woods says many brands are registered by people who just want to attach a Western symbol to their little piece of paradise.
Know the State Brand Laws
A brand, along with certified copies of corresponding registration paperwork, is enough to establish ownership of livestock in Missouri. It's not enough to simply brand animals, though. Brands must be registered with the Department of Agriculture. In fact, it's illegal to brand livestock in Missouri without also registering the brand with the state. In Missouri, your brand must be renewed every five years. The initial registration costs $35, while renewals costing $20.
For more information, or to download a brand application form, visit the Livestock and Animals section at www.mda.mo.gov.
Source: Missouri Department of Agriculture