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Brands – Time to Renew Registrations, and Brand the Calves

Gayla Piroutek

The Atlas Blizzard in 2013 reminded us of the importance of cattle brands, after cattle had wandered, crossed fences, and died during that devastating snow storm. After the blizzard, cattle brands became important in Western South Dakota in a way they hadn’t been needed since the days of the Open Range country. After the blizzard, ranchers were busy identifying the live cattle, as well as those that had died. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many cowboys had cattle grazing all across the region. With no fences, herds mixed and mingled. In the fall, the cows were rounded up, sorted by brand, and calves driven to rail heads for loading on trains to head to market.

Branding dates back more than 4000 years to ancient Egypt where brands were used to distinguish Temple and Royal herds from other herds. Spain brought branding to America when Cortez brought cattle marked with his three crosses brand to the new world in 1541. Each owner had a different brand. This “first brand book” in the Western Hemisphere was recorded by Mesta, the first stockman’s organization in the New World, and kept at Mexico City. As the Spaniards moved north into Texas, each cattleman designed his own brand. When his first son acquired cattle, a curlicue or pendant was added to the father’s brand, and as other sons acquired cattle, additional curlicues were added to the family brand. Among the oldest continual brands is the Running W of the King Ranch, which was originated by Richard King in 1869 and reregistered in 1943.

In 1862, Dakota Territory set up the first brand laws to apply in our area. In 1897 the Brand and Mark Committee was set up, and they published the Brand book of 1898-99 with 2,066 registered brands. Today folks collect brand books, and some pretty high prices have been paid for them at auction. The SD Brand Board was set up in 1937, with over 26,000 brands registered today in South Dakota. Techniques have changes, yet the initial purpose of the brand–to designate ownership– is still the same.

In the early west, ranchers could basically design their own brands. They just pictured something relating to their life. The Anvil is one of the oldest continuous brands in South Dakota, and can be traced to the late L. E. Utterback who was a blacksmith when he came to Dakota Territory, eventually settling south of Belvidere on the White River, registering his Anvil brand in 1878. Some cattlemen were reminded of the open buckle of a cinch, a fish, an animal track, a plowshare, or an owl. Originally, brands were just registered in the counties, but now all records have been transferred to Pierre.

Folks love brands with their own initials, but in practical use, some of the letters tend to blotch when applied with a hot iron onto the cattle. Another consideration is how many irons are needed to make the design. Some take three different irons, hence the term, “one-iron brand” denotes easier use and generally higher value to the brand.

Designing your own brand is hard. It must be accepted by the state brand board, and can’t be similar to other brands. Picture brands are no longer accepted. New brands must be letters or numbers. That is why there is a strong auction market for the sale and transfer of existing brands. Rafter, Mill Iron, Turkey Track, Ladder, Spur, Bell, Fishhook, and other unique brands have brought thousands of dollars. Brands are located on the right and left ribs, hips, and shoulders (mostly horses), so one design could actually be registered 6 times, as each location for the same design becomes a separate brand identification.

Although the brand books don’t label brands, there are rules when reading a brand. A leaning letter or character is “tumbling.” In the horizontal position it is “lazy.” Short curved strokes or wings added at the top make it “flying.” Short bars at the bottom of a symbol make it “walking.” Changing angular lines into curves makes a brand “running.” Half-circles, quarter-circles, and triangles were used in the late 1800s. An open triangle was a “rafter.” If a letter rested in a quarter-circle it was “rocking.” There were “bars,” “stripes,” “rails,” and “slashes” that differed only in length and angle. When a straight line connected characters, a “chain” was made. Brands are read from left to right, and top to bottom, from outside to inside. Try your hand at labeling the brands in the picture. To see how well you did, check the labeled list on page ___. The brands came from the book, “The Cowboy’s Own Brand Book” by Duncan Emrich.


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