Sometimes the old ways are the best ways

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When I first moved out west, I fell in love with the cowboy culture. It’s steeped in heritage, hardship and honour, all excellent cornerstones for any compelling story.

In that culture, there’s nothing more iconic than the branding ritual. Over the decades, brands have become their own language. Branding irons are passed from one generation to the next, or sometimes given as special tokens, as mine were to me. A rancher’s brand is his calling card and whether placed on a hide or on a sign above a homestead, it is the act of claiming something by saying, “This is mine, and I will take care of it.”

That’s why I was surprised to learn that half of Alberta producers don’t brand their cattle. This is, after all, the heart of Canada’s Wild West, and cattle rustling remains part of it. Unfortunately, cattle don’t come with serial numbers and try as we might, we can’t give them one with a removable tag that has a propensity for sometimes coming out all on its own.

RFID tags have always been about traceability for animal health purposes, but cannot replace the brand as a practical identification tool.

The big hats in this business — the ones that toe the official industry line — are quick to shrug off the importance of branding. I’ve heard it referred to as obsolete, medieval and unnecessary. It’s difficult for me to imagine these people ever having spent much time at a roundup, or an auction mart. Nor then, could they have any earthly idea how many wrecks our brand inspectors save us from.

When we think of cattle theft, we imagine shady characters arriving under the cover of darkness to round up our unsuspecting animals while we sleep. And yes, that does still sometimes happen — just ask Aaron Brower, who has lost $500,000 in cattle to theft in recent years (story, page 3). But more often than not, the circumstances of missing and stolen cattle are less dramatic and most times, our brand inspectors cure the trouble before it has a real chance to grow roots.

Good brand inspectors can see trouble coming a mile away. They instantly recognize new brands, new cattle and new producers. They live in the area they serve. In rural areas, we tend to know one another’s business in ways a RFID tag never could.

Let’s pretend a longtime local ranching couple — let’s call them Jack and Sally — have recently split the sheets. Jack comes into the sale barn with a pile of yearlings. Like every other year, some have Sally’s brand and some have Jack’s and they’ve always been run through without a problem. But this year, the brand inspector is going to hold the cheque after the sale until he talks to Sally herself to make sure it’s all square business.

These types of scenarios happen all the time. They happen when neighbours or business partners have a parting of ways, they happen when third-party financing is involved, and they can happen from old-fashioned rustling too.

I covered a story once where a purebred cow-calf guy had two pair stolen. They were RFID tagged and they were branded. The animals later showed up at an auction mart a few hours away. The thief had switched out the tags, but there wasn’t a whole lot he could do about the brands. Sure enough, the brand inspector suspected rustling was afoot and the thief was charged and prosecuted.

The Western Stock Growers’ Association has ponied up $50,000 for the cause, our brand inspectors here and in neighbouring provinces would like nothing more than to catch cattle thieves, and the RCMP livestock inspectors are chomping at the bit to charge those responsible. But we have to do our part, and none of that can happen if we don’t begin with a brand.

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