Cattle Brandings Then and Now

The Roots of Branding

For many of us, the idea of a “branding” is a removed but still somewhat familiar concept. Despite no personal experience, it may evoke visceral sensations of the scent of singed hair, the sight of dusty ranch hands handling calves, or the sound of a well-worn rope being coiled. It also is often accompanied by thoughts of community, tradition, and skill. Perhaps the vague familiarity is from a cultural education of western films, television shows, and dime novels.

A frame from “The Searchers,” the iconic John Ford film starring John Wayne.

Or, maybe, there is a faint whisper of multi-millennial genetic memory. The first known record of livestock branding dates to over 4,700 years ago, depicted in an ancient Egyptian tomb painting, and passages in the Old Testament of the Bible reference brandings. Romans branded cattle, choosing symbols that acted not as identification markers, but as supernatural protection. Our modern-day language is impregnated with allusions to branding. Even the ubiquitous “branding” of marketing departments derives from branding livestock.

An ancient Egyptian painting from the tomb of Nebamun depicting cattle branding.

However, for many, the most familiar concept of branding finds its roots in the open range of the American West in the 19th century. During the Reconstruction Era, after the American Civil War, a surplus of feral cattle in Texas and the West provided resources for a brief but lucrative beef industry. In the mid-1800s, cowboys drove large herds of cattle over the open range to railroad depots, where they were loaded and then transported to larger cities in the East.

The open range spanned from the public domain north of Texas to include significant portions of current-day Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, and other western territories that served as grazing lands for the massive herds. From 1866 to 1890 over five million cattle traversed both well-trodden and scarcely used cattle trails along the Great Plains. With the United States’ rapid colonization and a booming population (from estimates of 5 million inhabitants in 1800 to over 75 million in 1900), food security was a priority. The demand for beef, coupled with expansive tracts of land, made identifying livestock ownership a necessity.

Open Range (Photo: Kansas State Historical Society)

The American Culture of Branding

Like many ranching traditions that are commonplace in the United States today, branding methods in the Americas originated from Spain. The earliest estimated arrival of cattle to the Western Hemisphere dates back to the late 1400s and the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. In 1537, the Spanish Crown required that a stockmen’s organization (called the Mesta) be established throughout New Spain. With these Spanish conquistadors, the vaquero tradition developed. Stockmanship and horsemanship approaches varied regionally then as they do today, but the following is an overview of some of the basic branding principles spanning from the vaqueros to the modern-day cowboys.


While historical Spanish cattle brands were often comprised of ornate pictographs, early Texas brands were often formulated with letters. Brands can be comprised of letters, shapes, or symbols, often embellished with a serif. These flourishes coordinate with specific modifiers like “lazy,” “crazy,” “flying,” and “walking.”

Texas State Historical Guide


Unique brand distinctions are necessary, as the majority of brands are registered and indicate specific ownership. A brand inspector assists in verifying ownership and provides a brand inspection certification. Cattle rustling is still an issue in the modern West, and branding helps mitigate that risk.

The Ranchlands brand, a diamond star, was purchased from its former owner by our founder Duke Phillips III in the early 1990s.

Brand Inspector Book, early 1900s. (Bullock State History Museum)


The equipment for traditional brandings has changed little over the decades. The primary tools are branding irons (along with a branding fire), an ear notcher (to differentiate male vs. female), needles and syringes (to administer vaccines), and a sharp knife (for castration). These tools are utilized by a ground crew, while horseback riders rope and bring calves into the fire from the herd. After branding is completed, it is customary to enjoy a communal meal. At Ranchlands, that meal is often beans prepared over the branding fire.

Historical equipment often included a chuckwagon. Invented by the famed Charles Goodnight, the chuckwagon served as a mobile field kitchen on the range. Popular dishes included biscuits, potatoes, sourdough pancakes, beans, and salted pork. This style of cooking is still popular among cowboy culture enthusiasts.

The Future of Branding

Though many of the methods for branding have been relatively unchanged over the centuries, new technologies are welcomed. Beyond fire branding, other branding techniques are fairly common including the use of electric irons, freeze branding, lip or ear tattoos, and microchips.

At Ranchlands we practice a traditional style of branding. Branding season begins at the end of April and lasts until the middle of June, as calves are born and reach the age at which they can be safely branded. A branding day often starts around 4:00 am, with the cows penned by 6:00 am. Once the first calf is roped, everyone is ready to work. The calf is then flanked by the grounds crew, branded, vaccinated, ear-tagged, and males are castrated.

The process is done in less than two minutes per animal, and low-stress stockmanship methods are employed. The more relaxed and efficient, the better. The calf-cow pairs are kept in the same pen to minimize their time apart which in turn helps alleviate stress. After the branding process is completed, the calves are immediately reunited with their mothers. Branding allows calves to be vaccinated against diseases, prevents theft from cattle rustlers, provides data on herd health and numbers, and brings communities of ranchers together.

Brandings are an all-inclusive event. It is common to have multiple generations of families, in all stages of life, from newborns to great-grandparents. As Ranchlands founder Duke III wrote in 2019,

“Everyone is covered with all kinds of dirt. Everyone is smiling, talking, laughing. Everyone is hungry. The beans are smashed in a bowl sitting in the branding fire, and people grab a spoonful to lay into tortillas which have been heated on the hot coals on the ground, also from the branding fire…

Then, before you know it, legs are sticking out from under trucks where people have crawled under to take naps in the shade. No one is talking, except one or two who are not sleeping. The cattle drift off slowly, gangs of calves running around. The horses stand sleeping, resting. The afternoon is at its hottest, the sun hanging in the middle of the sky. Another branding will be behind us. Many more still ahead.

We trot home in groups, scattered across the prairie, everyone talking, horses moving easily at a slow gait. But no matter how sore or tired we are, how many welts we have from kicks, we ride together happy and satisfied knowing that not many people get to do what we just did.”

Join us for a branding at the Zapata Ranch or the Chico Basin Ranch.

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