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Ag in Action 2017



News-Argus Managing Editor

You’d think, in 2017, branding cattle for identification

would be a thing of the past. Why not just equip each cow

with a microchip, like we do with pets? That way, if they

stray, someone can just run a reader over them and find out

whose cow it is.

Well, according to Leslie Doely, administrator of the

Montana Department of Livestock Brands Enforcement

Division, brands are here to stay, at least for now.

“The reason branding is still effective is because it can’t

be altered,” Doely said. “We call it the ‘universal return


Ear tags, Doely said, can be cut out or damaged such that

they can no longer be read. Freeze brands can be altered.

Implanted chips can fall out, move or stop working.

But a hot iron brand can still be read even if someone has

tried to alter it (although the cow would need to be skinned

to see the original scar on the hide).

The state’s brand inspectors, Doely said, are uniquely

trained to read and recognize brands.

“Ear tags are good from a distance,” she said, “but brands

are good whether ear tags are present or not.”

Do rustlers still exist?

Branding began as a way to identify cattle on open

range. While little open range still exists, branding also

serves to identify ownership, especially in cases where

cattle have mysteriously wound up on the wrong ranch.

“Most of our reports involve situations without willful

stealing, such as where someone hauled a truck of cows

to auction and got some of the neighbor’s cows in with

theirs, or where someone’s cows cross over to someone

else’s place,” Doely said. “But we do get reports of stolen

cows and horses now and then.”

In the 2016 calendar year, Doely said, her office took

reports of 550 missing cows. Ten of those were recovered,

all of which were branded. In 2014, 400 head of cattle were

reported missing and 16 were recovered.

“Rustling is very difficult to track and we are in the

midst of improving our metrics on reports of missing

cattle,” she said. “Only a very small percent of those

reported missing are recovered and most of the time we

have no way to know if the missing animals were stolen,

died of natural causes or were killed by predators.”

Rustlers and brands

Cattle theft still an issue in Central Montana

Continued on page 39