Top of page

Collection Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945 to 1982


Branding Iron

Branding livestock is an essential piece of work performed by ranchers and buckaroos. A brand is the special mark or identifying design owned by a rancher and used in registering and identifying his cattle and horses. A branding iron is the handmade iron or steel tool that applies the mark to the beast. The end with the owner's brand is pressed against the side of the animal after being heated to red hot in a fire in the corral. The earliest "irons," as they are called in Nevada, were simple initials, figures, or numbers, but the designs grew intricate and ingenious as generations passed and conflicts arose over duplications of simple figures. The iron designs are recorded in a statewide brand book published by the Nevada Department of Agriculture, which often provides the ultimate evidence of ownership in disputes. The brands are illustrated, previous owners are listed, and the location of the mark on the animal is given. Brand books also indicate other ownership marks--wattles and ear notches. "Irons" are serious business.

Each community has its own state-operated and employed brand inspector, often a rancher who inspects cattle on a part-time basis. The inspector is charged with overseeing the shipment of certified cattle by ensuring proper ownership; he sometimes arbitrates in brand identification problems. Identification of brands on cattle is usually simple, but it can be difficult if the irons were applied carelessly or improperly. When the same brand is held by different ranchers, for various reasons, it must be applied on specific sides or parts of the cattle to keep things straight.

Branding, Grayson Ranch

Cattle branding is done mainly at two times of the year, in the spring after calving and in the fall after the roundup and driving the herd back to the home ranch for winter. The fall branding serves to locate and mark any calves born in the summer range or yearlings missed in the spring work. The work is traditionally done "outside" by roping the cows from horseback, throwing them, and slapping the hot iron on. It is a chore relished by many buckaroos.

Some ranchers now use "squeeze chutes" (metal contraptions that are placed at a corner of a corral or pen to trap and hold the cow firmly while the iron is applied) and the latest electric branders. Other important tasks are performed at the same time as branding: castration, ear marking, wattling, dehorning, and the administration of vaccinations, medicine, or vitamin serums with modern injection guns. All six pieces of work can be done in quick succession by several men working as a team. One person ropes and throws the cow and holds the rope taut. A second person lops a piece of ear off with a pocket knife while holding the cow's head down with one knee. That "knife man" (man or women) can then move around to accomplish castration (if necessary) and also cut the wattle mark. In ear marking, a crop, slit, split, or bob of the cow's ear is made with the penknife blade, and portions of the ear are removed or cut according to the established precedent in the brand book. The wattle is a special knife cut on the fatty portion of the cow's neck, jaw, or brisket area; the cut hide heals and hangs down in a certain position. Like the iron itself, ear mark styles and wattles are considered a rancher's property and can be used by other ranchers only if purchased and duly recorded with the state brand inspector's office. Ear marks and wattles are efficient identification methods in foul weather, under dusty conditions, or when cows are bunched up together. The law requires marking cattle with branding irons, and the customary legal system based on traditional usage since the middle of the nineteenth century calls for ear notching and wattling. Some ranchers use modern plastic tags secured to the cow's ear instead of the knife cut; the tags come in different colors and carry numbers and identification codes. All ranchers brand cattle, and most ranchers brand their horses too. Some ranchers also ear mark and wattle their cattle.

There are conventions in brand choice and design based on practicality and economy. A design should not blotch, so the iron or steel that will touch the cow's hide has to be a certain thickness, about one-eighth to one-quarter inch. Thinner irons would slice through the hide and injure the animal, and wider irons would dull the design. A plain design further reduces the blotching problem. The best iron designs are simply but ingeniously created to represent the owner's ranch or name. Good brands are also simple enough to discourage thieves and rustlers from being tempted to change the mark with "running irons." Running irons are kept by ranchers and used to mark strays when necessary, or to put a neighbor's brand on his strays that drift into the wrong herd. In addition, some now use "year irons," which apply a single digit brand indicating the year; far example, "4" indicates 1974, "9" indicates 1979.

Irons are read from top to bottom, left to right, and from outside in. Many irons are easy to read, like the Stewarts' 96 iron, a pioneer brand Mr. Stewart's grandfather bought from Aaron Denio when they took over the Denio ranch adjoining on the south. "The 96" is a major family ranch in Paradise, and the iron is well known throughout the Great Basin. Increasing in complexity are irons that have a "bar," "slash," "bench," "rocker," "circle," "three-quarter circle," "quarter circle," "wings," "box," "diamond," "rafter," and other conventional symbols that are attached in various ways to the core of the brand--an initial, a number, a figure.

In a hypothetical case of iron design, the first pioneer who stakes out the land and starts building the ranch might simply use his last initial--say, M. He finds that something more is necessary, since a new ranch over the mountain has the same iron, and furthermore a ranch in the next county has the W iron. Careless or inexperienced hands have been known inadvertently to apply his M iron upside down in the flurry and confusion of the branding activities. So he adds a rafter over the initial, creating the Rafter M Iron:

Later, one of his sons decides to go into the cattle business and wants to register his own brand but stay on the home ranch with the family elders and eventually take over the operation when the old man retires. So, the young man registers his own iron, which he calls the Diamond M:

made by welding another piece of iron onto the rafter. One or two additions are usually the limit before completely new irons are concocted. Ranchers may own several irons at once, since neighbors and other herds are occasionally bought out and added.

In Paradise Valley, these are some of the irons on some of the ranches we became acquainted with:

Now owned by the Nevada First Corporation, this iron is called the "Circle A" locally and was registered by an early cattle corporation, Abel and Curtner. Its full name is "Quarter Circle A." It is thought that the brand was originally called Compass, but there was some conflict with local Masons over its use, so it began to be called "Circle A." It is one of those irons with a common name that does not quite match the symbol itself.

The 7 U P iron is well-known as the Boggio brand, and Joe Boggio's son Harold now owns it. Even when an iron passes down within the same family, the symbol is re-registered with the state.

Seven H L Combined, an original 1864 iron of the Lye brothers, is now owned by Keith and Jean Thomas who operate the venerable pioneer Lye ranch at the head of Indian Creek.

C Bar, the iron owned by Bob Cassinelli and his sons, Bob, Pete, Dan, and Don.

Loui Cerri's Inverted T N T Combined.

Stan and Janice M. Klaumann's Four R Combined.

Quartercircle Hanging H, owned by Elizabeth Miller.

The 101, a pioneer brand invented by the patriarch of a German family, Gerhard Miller, Sr. The 101 is a popular iron in the West, but there is no connection between this one and the 101 Ranch in Oklahoma, founded in the 1890s by Col. George Miller. The Paradise Valley 101 was recently sold by Alvin E. and Anesita E. Miller to a young rancher from Turlock, California, Steve Lucas.

Carlo A. Recanzone of the pioneer Home Ranch, begun in 1864, has the Open A 9, which he registered in 1939 when he took principal leadership of the family operation.

Carlo's son, Carlo J. (Butch) Recanzone registered his iron with a symbol that cleverly coincides with his father's brand, to make the band closer and make identification of Recanzone stock simple. He calls it the 6 V.

Keystone, owned by Lyman W. Schwartz, grandson of pioneer businessman and rancher Robert Schwartz, a German immigrant.

The 96 iron used by the Stewart family on 96 Ranch cattle.

Several of the irons can be read correctly upside down, making the concentrated work of cattle branding a bit less troublesome: the 101, the 96, the Inverted T N T Combined, the Seven H L Combined, Fred and Robert Buckingham's Reverse B B Combined (left), and Jose GastaƱaga's Seven X L (right).

A surprisingly ancient custom (performed by Egyptians four thousand years ago and spread throughout the globe), branding cattle and horses is of extreme importance in the range cattle industry. It is not required on ranches and farms where the herd is kept inside fenced lots and controlled pastures, but the use of the iron is mandatory in the West where cattle graze out on the range. It is a rigidly enforced custom that answers both official legal orders and the unofficial, traditional legal system within the community. The official code combined with the unwritten laws of custom help keep life peaceful and orderly. It is hard to imagine the buckaroo life and work without the branding scene.