So these three Texas ranchers are sitting around a saloon and one says to another, “What’s the brand of your spread?”
“Double Bar T. What’s yours?”
“Rocking Y.” He turns to the third rancher. “And yours?”
“Double G Rocking E triple O Bar J running 6.”
“How many head you got?”
“Not many. They don’t survive the branding.”
Those days may be over as the feds are trying to get ranchers to stop branding and start ear-tagging. What’s next? License plates on our stagecoaches and inspection stickers on our saddles? Get a rope. Wait, before you become irate about Washington interference and micromanaging the back 40, let me explain. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture is proposing that adult cattle which are moved across state lines start wearing ear tags with an ID number instead of, or in addition to, a brand. Rustlers think twice about stealing that cow with those fabulous earrings, plus if any disease breaks out among the cattle the feds can easily spot the ranch, lot, owner, etc.
Some ranchers already use ear tags and they are increasingly important in exports to other countries, which account for about 15 percent of American beef and just over $5 billion in sales. Japan and South Korea both require electronic identification tags that verify the animal’s age and place of birth. The tags, which are stapled into an animal’s ear, are also less painful for the cow. OK, now you can get irate.
Some ranchers already are. An earlier federal proposal met with heavy flak and was shelved in 2009. This time the department received close to 1,600 comments on the proposed regulation, many of them negative. “Pilgrim, you’ll get my branding iron when you pry it from my hot, dead fingers.” Opponents note that rustlers can easily snip off the tags, but brands, like diamonds, are forever. Even if the brand is changed, the inside of the skin shows the change. Of course, you must skin the cattle to find out, which definitely lessens its value.
Here in Texas we have the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA), a 134-year-old organization which rides herd on brands. You probably have seen those association signs on the gates of ranches, just next to the hanging tree. There are more than 15,000 beef cattle producers, ranching families and businesses in the association who manage approximately 4 million head of cattle (Texas has 13.3 million) on more than 51 million acres of range and pasture land. That’s a lot of horns and hoofs.
It is the only private organization I know of with its own official and authorized police force: 29 peace officers are commissioned by the Texas Department of Public Safety and/or the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. Those rangers stationed along the Red River are dually commissioned to investigate agricultural crime in both states. Each year they investigate some 1,000 cases and recover an average of $5 million in stolen cattle and assets. Their job description is neatly ticked off by the TSCRA including, somewhat ominously, “keep the peace.”
You might be surprised to know there is no official state branding registry in Texas. It’s all done by the counties (at one time the office of hide and cattle inspector was an elective county office), but the TSCRA knows everything brand-wise. Now let’s learn branding. First, hold the cooler end of the iron. Where on the cattle you put your brand is just as important as the brand itself. The most popular spot is on the back left side. I recommend anywhere that the bull can’t gore you, and use a 45-foot handle. Brands can be handed down through the generations if you have proof Uncle Oscar wanted you to have his brand. They have to be re-registered every 10 years, and right now is the window of opportunity — the re-registration period began Aug. 31, 2011, and closes Feb. 29, 2012. You have to register in person because it’s hard for the county clerk to read rocking Js and flying Zs on his Dell.
This brings us to brand-speak. If you want to fit in with Luke, Slim and Pea Eye at the campfire, take notes: a leaning letter or character is “tumbling.” In the horizontal position it is “lazy.” Short curved strokes or wings added at the top make a “Flying T.” Short bars at the bottom of a symbol make it “walking.” Changing straight lines into curves makes a brand “running.” There are also rocking, bars, rails and slashes. Some ranchers were more inventive. A picture of a fish marked the cattle owned by Mrs. Fish of Houston. A. Coffin of Port Lavaca used a picture of a coffin with a large A on it. Bud Christmas of Seminole had his XMAS brand.
We all know the stories of the XIT brand, and the famed Running W of the King Ranch. Don’t forget the ranch with the unlisted logo: the Mavericks. There must be brands for ranches such as the Flying Dutchman, the Lazy Susan, the Rolling Stone and the Double Dipper. I knew a Jewish rancher who owned the Bar Mitzvah. Does Rupert Murdoch own the Fox CEO?
But the feds are trying to strike down what J. Evetts Haley called “the heraldry of the range.” I’d hate to see an end to the sizzle and smell of burning hide and the squeals of delight from joyful calves. Besides, it’s hard to make a James Avery pendant in the shape of an ear tag. Just doesn’t have the same pizzazz.
This Texas rancher is driving down roads in rural Vermont and spots a farmer leaning on a fence. The rancher pulls up and asks, “How big’s your spread?”
“Son,” says the Texas rancher, “I can drive for three hours and not get to the end of my land.”
The Vermont farmer replies, “Yeah, once I had a car like that.”
Ashby brands at email@example.com