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Branding still 'the best way to catch a cattle thief'

Branding still 'the best way to catch a cattle thief'

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Brand your cattle always has been good advice, but it is more important in today's markets because of the higher values. A stolen cow can put a thousand dollars or more in a thief's pocket when the animal is sold. This is a big incentive for people to stray into criminal endeavors.

"I thought we would see a downturn in thefts because there are fewer cattle to steal due to the drought," said Doug Hutchison, special ranger with Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. "In addition, penalties were increased for rustling in 2009 by the Texas Legislature. A person convicted for rustling can now be put in prison for up to 10 years. It seems that the higher values of cattle are overriding the negative effects of drought and increased penalties.

"Brands are the best way to catch a cattle thief," Hutchison said. "In most cases, a rustler will drive by branded cattle and hunt for unbranded animals. They know that the chance for being convicted of stealing a branded cow is very high. Fire or freeze brands and ear notches are good methods of marking your cattle.

"Ear tags are not good because the thief simply removes them. Neither are tattoos in the ear because the animal has to be caught and restrained in order to read the number. Our most common way of identifying stolen animals is by reading brands or ear notches through a set of binoculars."

Kinney Mingus, owner and manager of Milam County Livestock Auction in Cameron likes to recall the old saying: "Brand your cattle, don't let your neighbor do it."

"If someone else puts their registered brand on your cattle, then by law they belong to the owner of the brand," Mingus said. "That is why it is very important to brand your cows and bulls.

"The calves can be ear-notched and that serves as a good means of identification. Unfortunately most of our customers use ear tags for identification and only the big ranches routinely brand their cattle."

Brand properly

"There are concerns by some producers that brands may reduce animal value due to hide damage," said Eldon Cole of the University of Missouri Extension. "The most recent beef quality audit shows the discount per animal is only $0.74. Considering the value of theft protection, I'd say it outweighs the $0.74 risk. Hot iron brands result in more hide damage than freeze brands, but the latter can also inflict visible hide damage."

"Although cattle branding is a procedure that causes temporary discomfort or pain, it is used because it is the most convenient and practical way for animal identification on the open range," said a spokesman for the Oregon Cattlemen's Association.

"Brands are easily identifiable at a glance and at a distance. While it is true that calves bawl momentarily when a hot iron is applied, they do not seem to be in pain once turned loose.

"Cattle hide is much more thick (several millimeters) than our skin and has less nerve endings per square centimeter than most other animals. A correctly applied brand is no more painful than an injection or insertion of an ear tag and it leaves a smooth, hairless scar."

Position the brand correctly on the animal by pressing the iron firmly and rocking the handle slightly to apply the character evenly. Rocking the handle prevents over-burn or under-burn in any one spot. When the iron is lifted, the hide should look like new saddle leather.

The brand should be placed on the proper location of the animal. In Texas, cattle brands can be registered for placement on either right or left shoulder, side/rib, flank, hip/loin, thigh or all of these locations. It is important to place the brand in the location for which it is registered. When you place a brand on a location you don't have registered, you may transfer ownership to another person.

"Avoid designing brands with sharp corners such as boxes, squares, rectangles or triangles," Hutchison said. "Sharp corners cause blotches, but circles and arcs usually make a legible brand. It is not advisable to combine more than two letters or numbers in one brand.

"The more unique a brand is, the less likely someone will have it registered in another county. It is harder to find a stolen animal when the brand is used by different producers in four adjoining counties."

"Ownership of livestock brands only applies to the counties in which it is registered," Mingus said. "So it is important to register your brand in every county that you have cattle. If this is not possible, try to register similar brands so that they can be tweaked when moving cattle to a different county."

In freeze branding, a coolant and copper or copper-alloy branding irons are used. The coolant is either liquid nitrogen or a combination of dry ice and alcohol. Better results may occur with dry ice and alcohol, but locating a dry ice source sometimes can be difficult. Liquid nitrogen can be obtained from welding supply stores and artificial insemination companies.

"Freeze branding is relatively stress-free for the animal, and causes little or no damage to the hide. Unlike fire brands, freeze brands result in reduced incidences of blotching.

"Freeze branding takes more time, can be more costly and the brands may not be as clear on all cattle," Mingus said.

Another traditional method of ownership identification is earmarks, which can be registered in Texas counties for any position on either or both ears. Earmarks include splits, undercuts, notches or tip removal. Calves can be earmarked at birth, whereas the usual age to brand is around three months. Earmarks are readily seen from a distance, even if you are not close enough to see the animal's brand.

Brands or marks stop thieves at the sale

Brands and ear notches (often called marks) play a large role in the apprehension of cattle rustlers because they are checked at the auction sale by a brand inspector.

When a seller or contract hauler unloads cattle at a livestock exchange, the animals are worked through a receiving chute where a numbered tag is glued to their backs. An employee enters the date of delivery and name, address and telephone number of the seller on a drive-in ticket. Total number of head delivered by the seller and the license number of the delivery truck are also recorded.

Listed in the columns below this block of information are the back tag number of each animal, its description (color, breed and sex), and any number applied at the ranch, such as an ear tag, tattoo or brand.

Upon completion, the customer or truck driver is asked to sign the ticket. A separate ticket is completed for each customer. The white copy is retained by the livestock exchange; the yellow copy is loaned to the brand inspector so that he or she can transcribe needed information to a F1 Inspection Form; and the pink copy is delivered to the customer.

"I look at each pen of animals on sales day and compare the descriptions from the drive-in tickets to the animals," said Nina Nygard, brand inspector with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.

"I look for anything unusual about the animals while I record their brands and ear marks on the inspection form. If each animal in a lot is wearing a different brand, I get suspicious and start asking questions.

"We often get tips from livestock exchange employees. They know their customers and usually notice a stranger delivering cattle that fit the type raised by a client," Nygard said.

"That's why I like to unload the sellers' cattle myself," Mingus said.

"I know my customers and the type of cattle they raise. If someone I don't know delivers cattle that look like they belong to a customer, I quickly call the sheriff's office and ask them to do some checking."

"At the end of each sale, brand inspectors mail the inspection forms to Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association headquarters in Fort Worth, where the information is entered into a data base," Hutchison said.

"If someone reports a stolen cow and if it was branded, I can search the brand in the data base from my laptop computer. I get the seller's name, the delivery truck's license plate number, and other information that helps me catch the crook.

"If stolen animals are not branded or marked, chances for catching the thief are very slim," hutchison said.

Whether your herd consists of two cows or 1,000, it is important that you brand the older animals and ear-notch the new-born calves. It is the cheapest theft insurance that you can obtain.

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