By Stan Misek, Chief Brand Inspector


At the time of this writing, I’m two weeks into a 13-week stint at the North Dakota law enforcement training academy. The course includes both physical and academic courses and I’ve been hitting the books pretty hard. So, I figured it would be a good idea to share the experience by providing a short history lesson about the branding iron.
The branding iron dates as far back as ancient Egyptian times. Egyptians branded their horses and cattle to prove ownership. It was later used in Roman times to brand slaves. In the early 1800’s the brand was introduced to the Americans by travelers from Spain. At this time, the brand was mainly used by the vaquero “cowboy,” who would brand his cattle with a certain symbol or mark. His neighbors would do the same. Then, the neighboring cattle would graze the same area during the summer months. Their owners quickly learned that it was much easier to round up the cattle and prove ownership when the cattle were branded.
In those days, brands were heated over an open fl ame. Of course, today’s cowboys can select from a number of options that provide a consistent temperature and heat source, like electric branding irons or propane torches that are also easily transportable.
Then as now, brands are composed of capital letters of the alphabet, numbers, pictures, and characters such as a slash (/), circle (O), half-circle (C), cross (+) and bar (–).
It is hard to tell when it happened, but over time, brands developed a language of their own and brand inspectors are still expected to read brands in “brandabetical” order – left to right, top to bottom or outside in, depending on how the pieces are connected. Reading a brand in this format is fairly easy, once you learn the language.
Let’s take a look at some interesting brands and practice reading them.
This figure is a ladder.
This is called a rising sun.
Brands with multiple figures or letters are read from the outside in. For example:
This one is read as a “circle-S brand.”
North Dakota law prohibits the NDSA from registering brands with symbols inside of symbols, like the one shown above. However, those that were registered prior to 1951 can continue to be registered.
This brand should be read top to bottom, as in “Bar-M.” .
Some brands feature letters that lay on their sides, like the “S” above.
These letters are described as “lazy.” It is also popular to connect letters or fi gures. Subtle differences in the way in which they are combined will change the way they are read, however.
The “V” and “B” of this brand are combined and should be read as “V-Bcombined,” while the “V” and “B” of the brand below are simply connected and should be read as “V-B-connectedstraight- away.”
A letter or character placed above another character (below) is considered “hanging” when the two characters touch, as in the following “V” and “S” brand. It is read as a V-hanging-an-S.
The following is an A-with-a hanging- W.
Below is a lazy-W-with-a-standing- mill-iron.
Below is a broken arrow.
Sometimes, when the letters or symbols are combined, they can make for a quite unique read, like the one below, which is properly read “Two-lazytwo- P.” .
These are just a few of the many brands the brand inspectors are expected to read. Some are a little more diffi cult to read than others.
Throughout the years, brands have been a source of family pride, and today, many folks are not only using them as the return-address stamp for their livestock, but they’re adding the mark to all sorts of property, like woodcrafts, apparel, luggage or even grilled steaks.
North Dakota Stockmen's Association * 407 S. 2nd St. * Bismarck, ND 58504 * 701-223-2522 *