The Rationale

Why make a lasting impression on your cattle? To fend off cattle rustlers, whose pilfering of literal cash cows is hardly a defunct business (ranchers in the Southwest lost $6.2 million in livestock in 2005). “Think of branding as a license plate on your car, a means of identification,” says Larry Gray, of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. “A thief will generally pass up branded cattle.” That said, you may place heavier stock in your herd’s image and well-being: While branding is still prevalent in Texas, some ranches have phased it out because the permanent mark can devalue the hide. And oh, yes, because a burn from a flaming iron rod is unpleasant.

The Design

Open characters like “C” or “3” guarantee a clear brand; closed ones such as “8” or other too-fancy markings easily blotch. The best brands? Simple symbols that reflect your ranch name and discourage altering by rustlers. As for dimensions, the brand edges should generally measure three eighths of an inch; anything thinner leaves a deep, narrow mark that gets covered by a winter coat. Entire brand length ranges from four to five inches for cows and three to four inches for calves (to accommodate their growing hides). Always register your customized brand with the local county clerk.

The Method

Hot-iron branding has withstood the test of time (four-thousand-plus years), making it the most popular technique. For a more visible (and less painful) mark, some ranches employ freeze-branding, in which an iron dipped in liquid nitrogen is applied to the hide for about 25 seconds. (This destroys the pigmentation and causes the hair to grow back white.) But the process works only on dark-haired animals—and liquid nitrogen ain’t cheap. Other identifiers include a fashionless ear tag or an ear tattoo.

The Application

“First the calf must be immobilized,” says Tonnyre Thomas Joe, a South Texas rancher. “Rope and hold it down or maneuver it into a chute.” Heat the iron over a wood fire and wait for the brand to turn an ash-gray color (a black iron is too cold, and a red-hot iron can cause the hide to catch fire). Harden your heart and firmly press the iron to the calf’s shoulder or hip for three to five seconds, using a rocking motion to cover all points of the brand. Some ranch hands have graduated from the fire pit to electric and propane-heated irons (both better maintain constant temperatures). Never brand a wet hide or you’ll wind up with one botched bovine.