By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“It’s not alphabetical,” says Taylor, “it’s brand-a-betical.”
The branding alphabet, at least in concept, is among the oldest written languages in use. In 1940, Oren Arnold and John P. Hale published Hot Irons, a history of the practice, which explains that brands are read from top to bottom and left to right. Letters make their way clockwise around the dial. An upright letter is called “upright”; one tilted slightly to the right
is known as “leaning”; a horizontal letter is “lazy”; next is “leaning and inverted,” then “inverted,” then “inverted reversed” and so on. Brands can also be “hanging,” “combined” or “connected.” The letters should be spaced about an inch apart and should be readable from a hundred feet or so for purposes of easy identification.
Traditionally, brands were registered county by county, a practice that is still in effect in libertarian cattle lands like Montana and Texas. In 1917, California decided to combat cattle rustling by establishing a statewide brand registry. It was an obvious but uncommon step. Today, there are 23,100 registered brands in the state, with the rate of addition and attrition roughly constant, at 900 a year.
In the six millennia since the Egyptians began branding cattle, mankind has never come up with a better solution to animal identification. But keeping cattle straight has gotten trickier as modern cattle ranching has become a specialized business, with feedlots in one part of the country and roaming lands in another. These days, animals move around quite a lot. Every time a cow is shipped, whether it’s sold or simply sent to greener pastures for the dry summer months, paperwork is required. This is where brand identifiers come into play. Ranchers pay a dollar a head for such oversight, and anyone who tries to ship or sell cattle without the official forms is fined.
For a closer look at how the Rural Crimes Prevention Task Force works, I jump into John Suther’s pickup truck and head to the Cattlemen’s Livestock Auction in Galt, California. Suther is an affable man, thick of wrist and paunch, with a bushy mustache and a rancher’s history. His father was the state’s veterinarian, and Suther grew up around animals. He worked at an auction yard for 17 years before joining the task force and becoming the state’s top cattle cop.
As we drive south from Sacramento, office buildings recede from the roadside and then disappear altogether as the horizon opens up into empty range. Cattle country is dry, ruthless, and smells both musky and feral. Suther tells me that calves are typically worth about $500 each and that 70 percent of rustling is employees stealing from employers.
“They know how the system works, they know how to steal and where to sell.”
The other 30 percent, says Suther, “is neighbor stealing from neighbor or people stealing food.
“Occasionally, we find a dead cow in a field, well-butchered.”
“Yeah, you know, with the choice cuts removed.”
The task force locates around 2,500 head of cattle a year that have wandered from their range into neighboring ranges and return them without fuss or problem. But both beef prices and dairy prices are higher than they’ve ever been, and temptation seems to be getting the best of people.
Over a one-week span in early July, the Rural Crimes Prevention Task Force broke three cases. The first involved a man who had stolen 20-day-old calves (he had stolen them in twos and threes by, literally, throwing them in the trunk of his Chevy Lumina). The second was a pair of 18-year-olds stealing 26 beef cows the old-fashioned way — they rode horses onto the range in the middle of the night, roped the cows and dragged them back to a trailer. And the third involved a calf runner, the term for a person whose job it is to transport newborn dairy calves to the ranches where they’ll be raised. “This guy was picking up a load and dropping off half loads,” says Suther. “The missing cows were ending up back on his ranch. We don’t have a final number, but we think he’s made off with between 30 and 50 calves.”
We turn off the freeway and pull into a gravel parking lot packed with cattle trailers, horse trailers, shiny pickups with flames painted on the hood, and others not as shiny or as flame-painted. Beyond the parking lot is the Galt Yard, which covers an area nearly the size of a football field and is mostly just an enormous tin roof, raised up by wooden poles. On one side of the roof are holding pens, and on the other is the auction house. Connecting the two is a giant maze of wooden fences rising out of an oozing quagmire of dry dirt, cow shit and sucking mud. Trailers unload at one end of the maze, and the buying and selling take place at the other end. In between, on a typical day, are 500 head of cattle waiting to be sold. A brand inspector is the first thing that greets the heads as they enter the shoots.
Because there is nothing to stop a neighbor from altering a brand to match his own, cattlemen organized into associations (like the California Cattlemen’s Association) and began hiring brand inspectors whose job was both to be the highest authority when rustling is alleged and, in cases of undisputed rustling, to prevent lynchings and to involve courts of law. Today’s inspector is another affable, plaid-clad, buckle-laden cowpoke, named Roger Mahon. As cattle come off the trailer, Mahon counts heads, reads brands and checks everything against a stack of yellow papers in his hand.