Black Ink: Navigating the different ways and means of branding |

Black Ink: Navigating the different ways and means of branding

Our electric branding iron hangs high on a barn wall, bought on impulse 35 years ago but not used in 30. We freeze brand our replacement heifers, though.

And regardless of their perfect hides, we consider each year’s calves branded by the fact that they came from this place in Kansas we call Rockytop.

On many western ranches, there’s a day or time window known as “branding,” often in April or May, just ahead of turnout to summer pasture when calves are 30 to 90 days old.

From here on East, the hot iron is less common and freeze branding is a winter chore for older stock.

“Chore” doesn’t really fit the concept in either event. The camaraderie and pride in the work lift everyone’s spirits as they think about what takes a minute and what takes a lifetime.

Cowboy singer Brenn Hill captured the unique tug of this tradition in “Burnin’ Hair,” about a long day of community branding in Utah’s Wasatch Range, for those who want to Google it.

There are other opportunities at branding when it comes to management, like a first round of vaccinations or tagging calves and neutering males.

But if you think about branding in broader terms, there are even more opportunities, regardless of whether you actually apply hot or cold irons to the cattle.

I’m talking about your personal brand, which extends to your cattle. It goes beyond them, goes before you and follows you as well. It’s your reputation.

Pride, as the proverb reminds us, goes before a fall. But it’s a good thing to take pride in your work, family and community. Your efforts are a part of that, and it speaks to focus and continuity rather than boastfulness.

When it comes to your cattle, you should be pleased if planning and selection created a set of calves that can satisfy the next owner all the way to beef consumers. You should take pride in your care and management that keeps them on track to realizing their full potential.

That’s the way you build your brand. You can’t help but feel a sense of fulfillment when the calves top the market or command extra quality premiums from the packer.

In a few cases, you may have felt compelled to admit a lack of pride.

When I sell an animal that has developed a disposition problem, I have to say I am not proud of it, and resolve to cull all such animals from the herd. Throwbacks appear from time to time, and records invariably show a linkage to some cull from the past.

Cattle have many traits and can’t be perfect in every way, but when most of those traits line up to where we believe they fit our brand, we give that bull or heifer a chance. The best we can do is reduce the need for culling over time as our experience and judgment improve and the level of excellence in the herd rises.

The market constantly judges our brand, from our words and deeds to the way our place looks, how our kids and cattle behave. That’s the market in terms of society as well as finances. In every case, it works as a control to help keep us on track.

Consumer beef demand is just one more aspect of the market. Prices have come down a bit, but still represent a big commitment and confidence when diners or shoppers buy the brands we supply.

Like everything else from the farm and ranch to feedyards, packers, retailers and restaurants, our brands are promises. Let’s all work toward keeping them worthy of pride in promises kept. ❖

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