|By Regan Foster The Pueblo Chieftain
Published: May 22, 2016
|Through the fog and gentle mist, the cattle appeared. Two herds, being driven by more than a dozen whistling equestrians.
At the riders’ prompting the animals beat an orderly herd, filing into a large segmented corral. From there, the ranch hands began carefully separating the cattle.
First cows and calves were sorted away from two massive herd bulls and into an adjacent paddock. Then the 3-month-old animals were moved into yet another paddock, where they huddled together while their alert mothers called from the sidelines.
It was then that the paddock burst into a bevy of action. It was branding day for this year’s calves born on the 33,000-acre Turkey Track of T-Cross Ranches. The ranch spans 122,000 acres along the Front Range, including a quarter horse ranch in rural Pueblo County.
Bobby Norris, the general manager of T-Cross Ranches, and a volunteer crew of family, friends and fellow ranchers, worked quickly. Riders adept with a lasso roped the calves and guided them to the branding area. Once there, the hands took over, holding the calf steady while a trio of caregivers alternately gave the baby its necessary vaccinations, tagged an ear and branded it with the T-Cross icon — a capital T with a plus sign.
COURTESY PHOTOS/MARY ROSE PETERSON
Irons are heated in preparation for branding calves at T-Cross Ranches’ Turkey Track property.
In the course of about two minutes, each calf was back on its feet and directed to the opposite end of the corral to wait until all 75 or so animals were completed. It took less than two hours for the calves to be branded, vaccinated, tagged and returned to their mothers.
And just as calmly as they entered, the newly reunited herds quietly slipped out and headed back to their grazing lands.
Norris watched as the herds ambled over the crest of a rolling hill, confident that the brand newly seared into the youngest members’ hides were there for each animal’s health and wellbeing.
“We brand these cattle so if someone tries to sell it through the sale barn, the brand inspector can pick them up,” he said.
Since the mid-1860s, brands ha! ve been as much a part of Colorado’s lifestyle as the ranches that helped tame the West.
A deep history
Christopher Whitney, the brand commissioner for the state of Colorado, is the keeper of the 34,800 registered livestock brands in the state and overseer of about 60 brand inspectors. They are tasked with performing pre-sale livestock inspections for both horses and cattle.
“Brands by definition in Colorado are . . . permanent marks on the hide of an animal,” Whitney, a jovial man with a booming laugh, said. “If we come across an animal that has a brand, we’ll check to see if it’s a registered Colorado brand and who owns it.”
In the 1860s, Whitney said, ranches weren’t delineated by fences. Rather, herds were allowed to roam free, so their owners needed a way to distinguish whose animals belonged to whom.
Branding started informally, with ranchers finding unique ways to pe! rmanently add an identifying mark on an animal’s hide. But over the years, the logos became more codified. The state formed a brand office, published brand books and convened a brand board.
Mark of protection
Today, the division is tasked with protecting “Colorado’s livestock industry from loss by theft, illegal butchering or straying of livestock,” Whitney said.
“Really there isn’t any other way to permanently mark cattle,” said Carole Sondrup, a co-owner of T-Cross Ranches and daughter of founder Bob Norris.
The agricultural industry constitutes a $41 billion per year proposition, according to the state Office of Economic Development and International Trade. In fact, a report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reflected Colorado ranked 11th in the nation for the production of cattle and calves in 2012.
That year, meat animals contributed about $4.1 billion to the state, with cattle, a $3 billion proposition, leading the herd. Dairy cows co! ntributed more than $593 million in income. And although it may sound like something out of a John Wayne film, cattle rustling — or theft — is still a significant concern for those who make their livings on the land.
“The way I see it, there’s . . . a lot of stress and hurt on an animal if I have a calf that is lost and I don’t get it back to its mother,” said Tim Thatcher, manager of Thatcher Landing Cattle Co. in eastern Pueblo County.
Thatcher is a fifthgeneration rancher and a former member of the governor-appointed brand board. Today he is active in the Colorado Cattlemens’ Association and carries high hopes that the next generation of Thatcher will inherit one of the eight family brands.
Currently, Pueblo County has more than 840 registered brands on the books, he said. In some cases, the images were bought or sold like commodities. In many others, they have been passed down over the generations.
And that’s important to the soft-spoken rancher, who feels a sense of roots in the branding iron.
“It’s a connection to the past,” Thatcher said. “To the grandparents and great-grandparents who worked so hard for the industry and for Pueblo. To be able to say, ‘! we’ve had that for so many generations’ is a direct tie to our lineage.”
Brands are considered private property, Whitney said, and like real estate, they are passed from owner to owner via deed. And not all of the thousands of brands on file are actually in use.
“There are a great many people in the state who have brands, they just don’t use them on livestock,” Whitney said. “They just have a family history or a love of it and want to participate in the culture.”
Looking at the hieroglyphics of brands, it can be hard for the layperson to determine what they mean. But experts said every symbol is carefully thought out.
“The smaller and cleaner the brand, the more visible and detectable it is and, honestly, the quicker it is to brand,” said Gary Walker, a longtime cattleman and the owner of Walker Ranches. “Brands were a science in their own: To come up with a brand that was (a) very distinguishable, (b) that can’t be altered and (c) that is as humane as possible.”
According to a report by the Humane Society of the United States called “The Welfare of Calves in the Beef Industry,” branding causes pain, increased heart rate, vocalizations and other behavioral responses. However, all cattlemen emphasized that brands — which Whitney equated to a return address for the livestock — ! are a way to help protect the animals’ well-being.
And they all endeavor to make sure the branding process happens as quickly and in as lowstress an environment as possible. Which is why speed was such a commodity at the Norrisfamily event. For Walker, responsible ranching meant designing a brand that would be applied smoothly, quickly and with minimal sharp angles. He pointed to two Walker brands — one a rolling M with a quarter circle below it and a U with a slash through it that resembles a pitchfork — that he said met that strict goal.
Then there’s the matter of reading the logos. The location of the brand, the number of symbols, the orientation of the symbols and their arrangement all mean something to those in the know.
“It’s a language in itself,” W! hitney said. “It’s an art form.”
An important one, Thatcher said, that is also critical for the past, present and future of a lifestyle.
“Range wars have occurred and people have been hung for abusing brands,” Thatcher said. “Even today, there’s cattle rustling and horse (theft.) “It’s important to our industry today.”
Calves cluster together after getting branded with T-Cross Ranches’ brand. Ranchers throughout the range say brands remain a lasting legacy of the Wild West and the best way to permanently mark a cow.
COURTESY PHOTO/MARY ROSE PETERSON