Excitement fills the air on a crisp December morning, as the sun begins to illuminate the flint hills of Kansas. As everyone prepares their horses the lingering smell of fall is quickly replaced with the smell of the newly started fire. Once everyone is horseback, they gather around the fire to discuss the day’s events. With a prayer said they ride out into the flint hills to gather the herd from their pasture. It’s branding day at the Bar U Ranch. At the Bar U, this day happens in the spring and in the fall. There is no other day quite like branding day. It’s an exciting time on the ranch. It’s a day spent with friends, family and neighbors. But it’s much more than that. It’s a time to get a good look at the calves, a product of everything the ranch has been striving towards.
Branding cattle is most famously associated with the cowboys and cattle drives of the old west. As cattle were introduced to the Americas by the Spanish explores, so was the tradition of branding. However, the art of using a hot iron to singe a symbol into an animal’s hide goes back centuries. It dates back to the Ancient Egyptians who would mark their livestock to identify ownership. They also believed that certain symbols would give them magical protection. But it was the American west that made branding an iconic symbol of the cowboy. As the American west began adopting the method of branding, ranchers came up with the idea to use a metal rod with a symbol attached to the end, which soon became known as the branding iron. In the beginning the brands themselves were kept fairly simple. They were mostly composed of a single basic shape. Despite the simplicity of these brands they became a vital part in herd ownership. These brands made it possible for an owner to identify his cattle amongst the rest. A common practice among ranches at the time was to graze cattle on open ranges with cattle from various other ranches. This was because barbed wire for cattle was not invented until 1873. And after its invention it still didn’t offer an affordable way to fence in large portions of land. Plus, many ranchers had no desire to fence off their land. They were happy with the open range concept.So, these brands proved to be a reliable way to separate cattle when it was time to move them north to the rail yards. Many trail bosses would also put their brands on the cattle that were about to be moved, so to keep track of the herd while making the long journey north. Branding also became a way of protecting the cattle from potential rustlers and a way of claiming the Mavericks. Mavericks, as they became known, were unbranded cattle over the age of one. During the Civil War most cattle were left on their own, as many of the men went off to fight the war. After the war the men returned home to find the herds of cattle had greatly increased in size. These Mavericks were soon gathered up by ranchers and branded. Any unbranded calves under the age of one and still suckling were considered property of whoever owned the mother.
The first brand was registered in Texas, in 1832. After Texas gained its independence from Mexico, ranchers were encouraged to register their brand. With brands becoming so numerous it wasn’t long before ranchers were required to register their brand. This allowed for a system to keep each ranch recorded. Ranchers began carrying pocket books that would identify their brands and the brands of their fellow ranchers. During the cattle drive era all the cowboys would carry brand books of their own. These books would contain all the brands from the local herds. This gave the cowboys a way to return any lost or stolen cattle to their owner. Branding also became a way for the government to tax ranchers appropriately. Today, the brands are registered like trademarks, which allows them to be monitored, taxed and regulated as such. Today, branding iron designs must be legally registered.
Many modern ranches have moved away from the traditional methods of branding and moved towards the use of more modern methods. They have developed ways of gathering the herd which no longer require horses. Instead of using ropers to catch the calves, they use chutes and do everything on foot. Modern ranches have also moved to different ways of branding. Such as, using electric brands, which uses an electric heating element. And using freeze branding, which uses either dry ice or liquid nitrogen to chill the iron. Most ranches use ear tags. And many have started implementing the use of GPS.
Since the best way to preserve tradition is to live it, the Bar U Ranch still brands their cattle in the traditional cowboy fashion. Where the cowboys first ride out to gather the herd, before corralling them by way of a horse hair fence. A horse hair fence is exactly as it sounds. It’s a fence created by several horseback cowboys that will keep the herd contained to one area. Then, once the cattle have relaxed, the ropers are sent in to begin roping the calves. There will be one cowboy who will rope the head and one who will rope the heels. With the calf roped its legs will be tied together before the branding iron is applied. A rancher is always striving to make sure each brand is perfect. They want to make sure that brand is identifiable throughout the life of that animal, as that brand is the ranches signature. It represents not only them as a ranch, but also all of the breeding and genetics that the ranch is geared towards.
Regardless of how ranches brand their livestock, branding has a long, rich history in livestock ownership. With the practice still in full swing the reason for branding cattle remains the same. Even with modern day ear tags, GPS and other modern methods, branding still proves to be the most effective way to battle thieves and fraud. Branding will continue to give ranchers the chance to inspect the calf up close, administer vaccinations and to get a good look at its overall quality. Ranchers spend years developing a quality herd. One of the old cowboy statements is, “ride for the brand.” Which simply put means, you put all of your energy and effort into working hard every day for that brand, whether you’re the owner or you work for the ranch. And if you’ve ever watched a rancher inspect their calves you’ll see that pride for their animals in their smile. One of the best quotes I’ve ever heard about branding was told to me by a lifetime rancher. He said brands are many things, but they first and foremost show “pride in ownership.”
If you’re ever interested in experiencing life as a traditional cowboy, the Flint Hills Ranchin Adventures offers branding, cattle drives, and other adventures. Helping preserve a little bit of the rich ranching history. There’s always jobs for everyone and every experience level. If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at roping, there’s a day designed to teach the basics of roping so you can go into the herd with confidence. If working the iron is more your speed, then you can join the ground crew and help with both the branding and the vaccinations. And you simply just want to observe history in action you can sit on your horse and be part of the horse hair fence. Regardless of how much or how little you want to participate, branding and cattle drive events are a lot of fun. And if you love being horseback, love being in the vast flint hills, love helping to keep the tradition of the cowboy alive then a Flint Hills Ranchin weekend is something you don’t want to miss.
Written by Crystal Socha