A Guide to the Fascinating Secret Language of Cattle Branding

The concept of cattle branding may make some people squeamish, but the ancient practice is one of the main factors keeping the world's cattle trade from falling into chaos. Of course, cattle rustlers snatching your steers was more of a problem in the mid-1800's, but there's still no better way of keeping your stock in check and making sure the vagabond

s of the bunch get rightfully returned.

That's because today's brands have to be officially registered with state or county agencies, ensuring that your cattle's enduring mark is explicitly yours and no two are quite the same. Which can be a lot easier said than done, since the logistics of the actual brand keep the available designs fairly confined. What's more, the safety and experience of the cow is not at all discounted, and simple designs are far less painful than an intricate, ambulatory design that—though perhaps lovely to behold—would only end up burning more skin than necessary.

But that doesn't mean they have to be boring, as Modern Farmer describes:

What on the surface seems a straightforward practice of laconic, no-nonsense plainsmen, cattle branding is in fact a playground of design and cowboy semiotics. Symbols, visual puns and jaunty combinations of letters, numbers and styles make up a tradition of brand design that’s held steady through decades, giving rise to such notorious brands as the “XIT”, the “Running W” and the “7 Up”.

Using combinations of numbers, letters, and symbols turned every which way, cowboys have been able to make these deceptively simple markings their own. What may seem like a couple letters to the uninitiated can, in actuality, be a playful, jocular message if you know what to look for.

A Guide to the Fascinating Secret Language of Cattle Branding

Of course, because brands necessitate a simple design, an added line here or an extra curve there could turn it into an entirely different marker—which can be especially handy if you're looking to snatch yourself up some free cattle. And unfortunately, this practice has been gaining in popularity, forcing farmers who may not have chosen to partake in cattle branding before to start designing a brand of their very own. And with the price of a single head of cattle reaching up to $1000, this is no insignificant step.

So for now, cowboys will continue designing innovative brands in an attempt to separate themselves from the pack—at least until we can find a better way of differentiating between owners. But until a better ID technology comes along, that's not likely to happen anytime soon. [Modern Farmer]

Image: Shutterstock/Dale A Stork