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It's branding time in western South Dakota

MARTIN, S.D. -- It's the time of year when ranch families in western South Dakota hope to get a perfect day to hold their cattle brandings. Weekends usually are preferable, because many people work off the farm during the week, and rainy days wor...

MARTIN, S.D. -- It's the time of year when ranch families in western South Dakota hope to get a perfect day to hold their cattle brandings.

Weekends usually are preferable, because many people work off the farm during the week, and rainy days work against ranchers when trying to deal with a hot iron on wet hair.

The perfect days often become crowded with several neighborhood brandings, and workers divide their time to help everyone.

Brandings are a social event -- whole families pitch in, and it's often the only time neighbors and friends sit down to a meal together.


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History

According to the Texas State Historical Museum, the act of marking livestock with fire-heated irons to identify ownership has origins in ancient times. The ancient Egyptians and ancient Romans used brands, sometimes choosing symbols as part of a magic spell aimed at protecting the animals from harm.

These European customs were imported to the Americas and refined by Vaquero (Spanish cowboy) tradition in the southwest.

The branding iron, made with a specific mark for the owner, was heated in a fire and pressed against the hide of the cattle. The permanent mark that was left allowed several cattle owners to graze them freely together on the open range. Cowboys could then separate the cattle at roundup time and drive them to market.


Branding law

Cattle rustlers became adept at changing brands to sell cattle under their name.

That practice led to the requirement that all brands be recorded in a book ranchers could refer to as they sorted their cattle. Laws were passed that not only required the registration of brands, but also the inspection of cattle driven through various territories.

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According to the South Dakota State Brand Board, the state's brand law dates back to the Dakota Territory in 1862. At the time, the Land Office was charged with maintaining a record of all brands in the county or area. In 1897, the Legislature established a Brand and Mark Committee to oversee registration of livestock brands. The committee published the first Brand Book in 1898, which contained 2066 registered brands.

The State Brand Board that stands today was created in 1937. The board consists of five members, a director, three criminal investigators and a group of brand inspectors who carry out the program. Today, the board maintains more than 26,000 livestock brands.

Certain brands are highly sought after, especially if the design doesn't have junctions of crosses. Brands with Js, Ls or one character are preferred over brands with an X, where the center gets very hot. If those brands ever are released for sale by the rancher, they can bring between $10,000 and $12,000.


Process

A good brand starts with a tool made from a good grade of iron, with the face at least 3/8-inch thick. They normally are heated in a stove powered by propane.

While you might think of a red-hot branding iron, it is preferable they are a light ash color when ready. A brand resembling boot leather is the goal, and the brander needs to know the right amount of pressure to apply and time to hold.

Ranch families have worked to keep the traditions around branding day. But, ranchers have drifted toward newer techniques because of a shortage of labor. Some choose to use a calf table or cradle, which looks like a small enclosed chute that can be turned on its side for processing a calf inside.

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For Jim Mansfield, his two sons and their families, branding day meant more than 50 people coming to help. It's expected that if others help you, you return the favor. Mansfield says, "My two most stressful days of the year are branding day and sale day."

And when lunch afterward comes from the kitchen of Jim's wife, Kathy, everyone goes home tired but satisfied.

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
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