The History of Branding

Hieroglyphics on Egyptian tombs dating back at least 4,000 years portray the branding of oxen and cattle. The Romans and Greeks also branded working animals, including oxen, horses, and donkeys. (The Romans even branded human slaves.) Fire branding most often involved an iron rod?sometimes bearing a symbol or initials?that was heated in a wood- or coal-fueled fire. When applied to the skin, the red-hot iron formed a permanent scar. To this day, the practice requires a deft hand, as infections can result from unnecessary pressure and deep wounds. Splotchy, indistinct brands come from branding an animal?s wet hide.

Mesta, the first stockman?s union, was established in Castile, Spain, because of the region?s vast grasslands. The Spanish had adopted the Moors? practice of branding cattle for the purposes of identification. Branding the hides of draft livestock and cattle was common, although valuable breeding stock such as bulls and rams were sometimes fire branded on their horns. Initially, when Castilian shepherds prepared their flocks for their migration from summer to winter pasture, they would ceremonially ?brand? their sheep with almagre, red ocher, in order to distinguish their animals from those of other flocks.

Hern?n Cort?s brought the first cattle to the New World in the early 16th century?as well as the practice of branding. His personal brand?three Latin crosses?is believed to have been the first in the Western Hemisphere. Early Spanish brands were usually ornate, in keeping with the era?s elaborate silver and leatherwork designs displayed in tack, weapons, and vaquero attire. The conquistadors also branded their horses, as well as Indian slaves (on their cheeks). The Mexican Mesta, the first stockman?s association in the New World, established branding regulations, including required round-ups, brandings, and registration of brands in ?brand books.?

With the arrival of the vaqueros in northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S. (notably, Texas), the symbolism of branding was further codified. Livestock from multiple ranches grazed on open range and ranchers had to register their brands (regulated by state or private agencies) and submit to inspections. It became standard practice to brand horses or cattle on their left or right hip or shoulder using capital letters and/or numerals, instead of pictographs, often in combination with symbols. Rustling was also rampant, and poker-like ?running irons? were used to alter brands using freehand etching, rather than stamping.

Although fire branding is still used on commercial cow outfits, gas and freeze branding (which uses dry ice or liquid nitrogen) are often used on horses and registered cattle herds. Captured mustangs available for adoption through the BLM must be freeze-branded, for example. Tattooing, microchips, ear notching, tagging, iris-recognition technology, and semi-permanent paint branding are all slowly being implemented, as well. And most cowboys still rely upon roping and throwing calfs or squeeze chutes to apply a brand. Some farmers, however, are beginning to use branding cradles, portable restraining devices that tilt young animals on their sides.

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