April 19 was a busy day on the Starr Ranch north of Hershey; calves were being vaccinated and branded to protect the health and safety of the animals. The scene is repeated every spring on ranches all over western Nebraska, shortly after calving.
Vaccination protects the animals from diseases. Branding helps to counter theft and to recover cattle that wander away. Branding also ensures ranches comply with the law. C.J. Fell is one of four brand investigators for the state of Nebraska. He said cattle must have identification in order to be taken across state lines, and branding meets that requirement. Many counties also require branding for local sales; they are called “brand” counties, Fell said, and include all counties in western Nebraska. Fell said the eastern counties do not have the same branding requirements, but there are good reasons for branding regardless.
Branding is proof of ownership.
“It’s similar to a VIN number on a car; we’ve got something to trace back,” Fell said. He gave the example of a black cow wandering away and joining another herd of black cows. Without a brand, “how are we going to prove that black cow is yours?” he said.
Fell said he investigates theft, but it is more common for a cow to get through a fence and stray away. If the person finding the cow reports it within seven days, he or she can claim any damages caused by the animal and for feed the animal eats, Fell said. Often, though, the animal is not discovered until the herd is rounded up to sell, he said.
There are about 50 full-time and 50 part-time brand inspectors in the state, he said. They work to identify owners of stray cattle and also do brand inspections whenever ownership changes, whether in a private sale or a sale at a livestock facility. He said the parties also keep papers to document their ownership.
According to Nebraska statute, animals may not be branded without first registering the brand with the state brand committee office, which is in Alliance. The brand committee website includes a list of brands that are currently available, and specifies which part of the animal on which the brand may be placed; shoulder, rib or hip and right or left side. Different owners may register the same brand with placement on a different part of the animal. Fell said a producer can also pay to have exclusive use of an entire side or both sides of the animal, for his brand.
If they are transported across state lines, the animals must also be inspected by a veterinarian, Fell said. If there are problems with communicable diseases, such as mad cow disease, it is important to be able to trace it back to its source, to isolate and contain it, he said.
“The hard part is that transportation is so quick and easy,” he said. “A guy could buy livestock in North Platte and be in a no-brand area in eastern Kansas within a day and tracking that can be very hard to do.”
Branding, documentation and cooperation are all very important, Fell said.