On Many High Plains Ranches, Branding Is Still a Tradition

Jul 13, 2016

Daxton Books, 7, watching as his father, J.R. Books, ropes calves. Mr. Gray, a third-generation rancher, calls on many local residents to help in the branding ritual.
Credit Nick Cote / New York Times

The West has changed a great deal since the days of thousand-mile cattle drives. Ranchers now employ drones to track livestock, and many have traded in their trusty horses for four-wheelers. But in Colorado and other parts of the High Plains, notes The New York Times, there’s one tradition that hasn’t changed: branding day.

It’s an event that dates back centuries. Folks gather from neighboring ranches and spend the day pressing hot curved iron into the flesh of calves. Afterward there’s dinner, and sometimes a dance.

Critics have labeled the tradition as cruel, and many ranchers have taken these complaints to heart. On some ranches, brands have given way to more modern methods like ear tags and freeze brands created with liquid nitrogen. But on many ranches, branding is still the go-to method.  

Bill Gray, 65, is one such rancher. He owns land outside Ordway, Colorado, and he still tracks and marks his cattle the old way. He explains that brands allow him to prove ownership and ward off cattle thieves. “You can tear the ear tag out,” he adds. But brands are forever. And rustling isn't just a crime of the past.