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Hot iron brands have been the standard and legal way to identify ownership of cattle, but many other identification systems are often used for individual identification and herd records – such as freeze branding, ear tags, brisket tags, neck chains with numbers, lip and ear tattoos, horn brands, etc.   

Before the advent of ear tags and brisket tags, ranchers came up with ways to differentiate their cattle from their neighbor’s animals. 

Traditional ID

Traditional methods for ownership included earmarks and skin wattles. 

An earmark – be that a split ear, undercut ear, ear notch or tip cut off – or a dangling piece of skin on the underside of the neck could be seen from a distance, even if ranchers were not close enough to see the brand on the animal.

Bill Clymer, a Texas rancher, uses a small notch at the tip of the left ear when a calf is born.  A person can always tell who the calf belongs to, even if it might be awhile before the calf gets branded. 

“Then, if he loses his ear tag, he still has the ear notch,” Clymer says.    

Ear notching is still used in east Texas and the Southeast.  Some earmarks in Florida date back to the Spaniards. 

The Seminole Tribe uses earmarks for owner identification since different families run cattle together, sell them in truckload lots and check earmarks for ownership when they weigh the cattle.


Tommy Mann, who managed the Seminole cattle from 1972-90, says the tribe uses a combination of brands and earmarks to show ownership. 

“The brand is the legal ID, but earmarks are often a lot easier to see. Ranchers often earmark calves when they are small and may not brand them unless they decide to keep them in their herd. If they sell the calf, they don’t brand it,” he says.

“The Seminole families have their own herds, but their replacement heifers all run together until they are two years old.  At one place, they have about 40 different cattle owners, and on the other reservation they have about 30 – so there are about 70 different earmarks and brands,” says Mann.

A triangular notch out of the end of the ear is called a swallowfork. If the end of the ear is cut off, it’s called a crop. 

A little notch in the bottom of the ear is an underbit. At the top of the ear, it’s called an upperbit or an overbit. A fishhook underbit is more sloping and doesn’t go clear to the end of the ear, so it looks like a fishhook. 

An underslope starts at the back of the ear and comes out toward the end of the ear. 

“A ‘sharp’ comes clear to the end, making the end of the ear look like a point. 

“One of the larger ranches here in the early 1900s had a sharp, sharp, one on each ear,” says Mann. “Most cattlemen use a combination of marks. They may have a left ear with a crop and a split, and the right ear has a crop and an underbit or underslope.”

“There are many different combinations.  Some people use a crop and two splits,” he says.

“Earmarks and brands go together when we register a brand, even though the brand itself is the only legal mark. Some of our brands here are very old, from when the Spanish brought cattle to Florida,” says Mann.

Metal tags

Before the advent of plastic or nylon ear tags, some ranchers used metal tags. 

Monroe Magnuson, a Utah rancher, remembers gathering and collecting metal ear tags as a child at the range association sorting pens where the cattle came off Forest Service allotments in the fall. 

He had some tags in his collection from the 1940s and 50s.

“The most easy-to-see mark in our part of the country was the wattle, though very few people use these today.  Our wattle was on the shoulder,” Magnuson says. “On my mother’s side of the family, the ranchers all had wattles on the brisket, dewlap or chin.”

He continues, “I remember helping my uncle work calves when I was a kid, and I hated to wattle the calves on the brisket because it was a bloody job. But it was easy to identify those cattle from a distance, from either side.” 

“Here in Utah, I’ve seen wattles between the eyes, on the cheek, two side-by-side on the neck, on either side of the tail, and other places,” says Magnuson.

In-herd ID

Today many ranchers use in-herd identification with individual numbers or a combination of numbers and letters, utilizing ear tags or brisket tags. The latter usually stay in place for the life of the animal and are not as readily torn out as ear tags.

Earmarks are sometimes used, to help with record keeping. Ear notching or ear tag notching can be used to identify breeding groups, cull groups or antibiotic-treated cattle. For instance, if a person has to treat a calf, a quick notch out of the ear or the bottom of the ear tag is a later reminder that this particular calf had to be doctored.

Ranchers may also note health problems or indicate their plans to keep or cull animals using ear notches or marks on the eartag.

A handy identification system used by some ranchers is brisket tags on the cows, a permanent in-herd ID number and ear tags on the calves to match the mother’s number, so producers always know the dam of the calf. 

Even though ear tags are often lost, they generally last through calfhood, and if they stay in longer, the dam’s number is there for reference.

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Casper – A May 18 Wyoming Livestock Board (WLSB) meeting included substantial discussion about the brand division, with topics ranging from brand renewal and computerization to brand inspector salaries.

“It’s been a busy month,” said Lee Romsa, brand commissioner, during the meeting. “We’ve had district meetings throughout the state, and we’ve also handed out the tablet computers to our inspectors for our new system.”

Computerization project

WLSB launched its computerization effort several years ago in an effort to increase the usability of brand records and to enable faster traceability of livestock movement in the event of a disease outbreak. With software development as an ongoing process, the Brand Recording Division of WLSB is in beta testing for the equipment.

“We started computer training this week,” said Romsa. “Frankly, it’s a good step forward, but it won’t be a quick or easy process.”

With challenges in the technology gap and some software and training concerns, Romsa notes that it may take significant time before brand inspectors around the state are fully comfortable with the system.

Despite the hurdles, he added, “Reactions from inspectors have been mostly positive. While some of our inspectors really don’t want to go in this direction, they are willing to give it a try. It’s going to take a lot of work, and it’s going to be a process.”

Inspector input

Brand Inspection Supervisors from the state commented that changing to a new system is a challenge.

“Online training is really difficult for people who are already intimidated by a computer,” said Gary Zakotnik, a supervisor from Eden. “The inspectors in our division are really trying to make this thing work, but they’re running into some roadblocks.”

At the same time, some portions of the program are still under development, and as training progresses, new developments are being made to improve the process.

“We just started on May 16 with training, and there are parts of the program that aren’t quite finished,” Romsa said. “It’s a very frustrating process, and it’s a very complex system.”

He added, “This is a difficult task, but our inspectors are willing to try, and they’re willing to learn. We appreciate that, and we don’t take it lightly. It’s been really important.”


During the 2016 Budget Session of the Legislature, the Wyoming budget included in it raises for brand inspectors.

“We’ve talked about a two-phase system with the raises,” said Steve True, WSLB director.

At the same time, questions about implications of federal rules.

“In 2014, the DOL was tasked by the president to revise their wage and hour overtime rules and the exemption clauses within that,” True said. “That rule went to the Office of Budget Management in March this year with substantial changes.”

The final rule was released on March 17 in its final form.

Wyoming A&I noted that WLSB is likely to become non-exempt from overtime and compensatory time rules, and True mentioned that there was also conversation about transitioning from a salary program to an hourly wage program to facilitate the rule change.

Exempt status is based off of several parameters. The first is a salary basis test. The old test said salaries of $23,660 and above can be classified as exempt if certain duties and statuses are met.

“Typically each exemption has one to four items that we must meet to be exempt,” True said. “The salary basis had been increased to $47,456 per year, and there will be adjustments every three years.”

If salaries do not exceed that amount, the rule states that an overtime or compensatory time program must be utilized.

True noted that brand inspectors would not qualify for an exemption as a result.

Additionally, he did not accept the recommendation that brand inspectors be paid on an hourly basis.

“Among other things, it wouldn’t be fair for our inspectors to fight for a raise in the legislature and then not be able to give it to them because we changed to hourly,” he said. “It also maintains stability within the program.”

True also noted that a more substantive, more refined daily time card system must be implemented, however, to accurately account for time spent.

Increased time accountability may be beneficial in some respects, though, True said.

“It can help us figure out how effective we are and if there are underserved areas in the state,” he commented.


“We feel there is a period of time necessary to track a cost-analysis of the overtime program. We feel salary may not be as expensive as overtime on an hourly basis,” True said. “We can talk about how a compensatory time program would work to the advantage of the inspectors.”

He added, “We would accept, if necessary, a review period of one-year to look at cost and efficiencies. We feel this is a big enough issue that all stakeholders deserve a voice.”

Possible consequences include loss of valuable personnel, necessity for new wage projections in difficult budget times and the need for additional part-time inspectors in some regions.

WLSB is also working to ensure that brand inspectors maintain their current healthcare benefits.

“We need time to study this to make an informed decision before the program goes forward,” True said.

The rule requires compliance by Dec. 1, 2017. It is still subject to Congressional review, True added, and bills in both houses have been introduced to nullify the bill.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Casper – During an April 7 meeting of the Wyoming Livestock Board (WLSB), Brand Commissioner Lee Romsa reported, “Though early in the year we were running ahead of the prior year for inspections, overall we were down a bit from 2013.”

Data showed that total brand inspection forms from 2013 to 2014 dropped by 1.07 percent, with the largest decrease seen in cattle. 

Inspection numbers

Total livestock inspected in 2014 hit 1,409,217.

“Overall, total livestock inspections were down 5.25 percent,” Romsa said. “Cattle were down 7.07 percent. We inspected 1,082,876 cattle in 2014.” 

Horses also saw a decrease of 4.80 percent from 2013 to 21,460. However, inspections of sheep increased by 3.71 percent to 300,557 sheep.  

“This year, our inspections depend on this month and next month and the moisture that we get,” he said. 

2015 predictions

Romsa commented, “Our moisture over the next couple of months  will determine what our year will look like. There is pretty severe drought in other states surrounding Wyoming.”

If droughts continue, Romsa mentioned that producers will be seeking available pasture where they can find it. 

“Pasture rents are high right now,” he said. “If people have grass, we will probably have out of state cattle come in to Wyoming. If not, we might see a sell off.”

Romsa also noted that a general retention of heifers has been seen in the state, but if severe drought hits, it is possible that heifers will be sold to compensate.

At the markets

“Market inspections were down roughly 75,000 head from the year before,” Romsa said, noting that the number is a decrease of 19.87 percent from 2013. “This is a trend we have seen for many years.”

Romsa explained that, going back to 2000, over 900,000 animal were inspected at livestock markets around the state of Wyoming, but in 2014, only 276,842 livestock were inspected. 

“Since 2000, we have lost a couple of markets,” he said as a reason for the decrease. “People are also marketing their cattle differently through video sales and whatnot.” 

Brand renewals

Romsa also reported that brand renewal finished on March 1, and of the approximately 5,700 brands up for renewal, 77.2 percent were renewed. The remaining 22.8 percent were listed as delinquent. 

Romsa also noted that this year, the WLSB sent out certified notices that brands needed to be renewed.

Under delinquent status, producers are still able to renew their brand for an additional fee above the renewal fee. 

“Most years, we have about 80 percent of our brands renewed,” Romsa said, adding that in the last 30 days, nearly 60 delinquent brands were renewed. “Brands will not be listed as abandoned until next year.”

On average, the WLSB maintains between 28,000 and 30,000 brands that are registered. Brands are abandoned for a variety of reasons. 

“People may abandon a brand when they retire, or the brands may be dropped after a death. Other brands are dropped when people move or other things,” Romsa said. “Overall, we have a fairly constant number of brands in Wyoming.”

Romsa also noted that the Brand Division of the WLSB is almost fully staffed, with only one position in Torrington still open.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Riverton – Ranchers across Wyoming have cited concerns with cattle rustling over the past several years, and this year, the issue came to a head as the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee meeting.

In a follow-up from the meeting, the Wyoming Livestock Board (WLSB) also addressed the topic during their May 27 meeting, noting that the issues related to rustling, particularly in dealing with the Wind River Reservation, should be dealt with and options to work together should be explored.

Looking into livestock theft

“Generally, our enforcement officers classify rustling and missing livestock together,” WLSB Director Steve True explained. “Most reports are classified as ‘missing’ originally.”

He continued, “If a suspect can be identified, it will switch to rustling.”

In 2004, 58 cases of missing livestock were identified. That number dropped to 52 cases in 2014, but True mentioned that they typically see between 50 and 60 cases of livestock theft reported each year.

Senator Leland Christensen of Teton County mentioned, “If we had 52 cases of livestock theft in 2014, that is one per week. With the price of cattle today, that means potentially millions of dollars.”

Hard numbers

While the WLSB readily had the number of cases of livestock theft in the state readily available, Christensen asked, “If we had 52 cases, how many head of cattle does that include?”

True noted that to gather that information, a hand search would have to be conducted to determine a count of the numbers.

However, several committee members were unsatisfied with a lack of numbers and requested that True research the number of animals reported missing, as well as the number of cases of missing livestock or livestock that have been solved in the last five years.

Handling cases

When a report of livestock theft comes in, True explained that it is not uncommon that the report is made three or four months after the event.

“We turn cows out in May and gather them in September,” he said. “I might not know that I’m missing 30 head until then. There is a tough solve rate with an event like that.”

True continued, “This is also a commodity that is alive and profitable.”

The result is that it is often difficult to trace down where cattle went, particularly if they have been sold or slaughtered.

“The potential for cattle theft is out there because the dollar value of cattle,” True said. “With four enforcement officers, the best thing we have is our presence through our roadside checks. Then the public knows we are out and looking.”

He also noted that collaboration with other agencies is and will continue to be important in addressing theft cases.

On the reservation

In addition, members of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe tribes on the Wind River Reservation have expressed concern with rustling.

“I have attended trainings with our law enforcement officers and Fremont County Sheriff’s Department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Wind River Police Department and several others,” True noted. “I was duly impressed with the collaboration between these groups and the openness and understanding of the jurisdictional hurdles they face – whether it be on deeded land, fee land, reservation land or public land.”

From leadership

Darwin St. Clair, chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe Business Council, also attended the legislative committee meeting, mentioning, “There are numerous examples of livestock being stolen. One rancher lost 90 head of mother cows, and another lost 90-plus calves in one year.”

He noted that both the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho tribes request that a joint compact of some form be developed to work together to solve the challenges of livestock theft on the reservation.

“We do know that our producers are losing large parts of their herds,” St. Clair added, “and we believe there are ways we can work together and collaborate to make things better for everyone.”

As one possibility, St. Clair mentioned that assessment fees taken from the reservation could be utilized to hire an additional brand inspector or enforcement officer to specifically deal with herds and producers on the Wind River Reservation.

He also noted that other options may be feasible, as well.


One hurdle in working with the Wind River Reservation is the jurisdictional challenges that accompany the effort. Determining who has jurisdiction has proved to be challenging.

“Wyoming brand authorities claim they have no jurisdiction,” St. Clair said. “All livestock producers are assessed the same fees, and  our producers feel they are not being represented.”

One cattle producer from the Wind River Reservation noted, “I have to have a state brand inspection on my cattle on the reservation, but when I turn to them about cattle that are stolen, they say they have no jurisdiction. It is frustrating.”

“The jurisdictional hurdles are immense,” agreed True, noting that understanding who has what authority will be an important step in working together to address cattle theft.


With challenges for both sides, the Joint Ag Committee agreed that some efforts to work together should be looked at moving forward.

Representative Jim Allen of Lander said, “I’d really like to see us all sit down together and talk about the challenges and the authorities that we have and don’t have. Before we can solve this, we really need to sit down and hammer out what points we need to look at to achieve protection of private property.”

True noted that he will be attending a meeting in early June with both tribes to discuss the challenges related to addressing issues on the Wind River Reservation by exploring the possibility of an agreement.

“There will be interaction between tribal groups, committee representatives and others forthcoming,” True said. “There will be jurisdictional hurdles to jump and authorities to delegate, but I think there are great possibilities.”

Finding solutions

“The discussions during the Joint Ag Committee meeting were lively and positive,” True told the WLSB on May 27. “The committee seems to be proactive and interested in these discussions.”

Board members agreed that their presence would be important at future meetings between the tribes and the WLSB, also noting that it would be wise to proceed with caution to make sure all legal challenges are addressed.

“With the data we have, I wonder what we can do as the Legislature to make sure that Wyoming isn’t a rustler-friendly state,” Christensen said.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Riverton – The Wyoming Traceability Working Group (TWG) was established in 2010 to address Wyoming’s ability to both trace back disease outbreaks to their origin and to trace livestock movement forward to identify those animals that have contact with an infected animal.

Through several meetings over three years, the working group has made some progress, but traceability continues to be a sticking point within the industry. 

As a result, an April 16 meeting was held in Riverton to determine the direction of traceability in Wyoming moving forward.

Wyoming State Veterinarian Jim Logan asked attendees, “Where do we go? We can stay with the status quo if we are happy, or we can pursue legislation and funding for other programs if the working group decides we should look at further options.”

Industry opinions

In meeting as a working group, Logan said he needed industry input to determine what to report to the Wyoming Legislature Joint Committee on Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources (Joint Ag Committee).

In both 2011 and 2012, bills were introduced to the legislature, both of which failed.

“I think one of the reasons the bills failed is that we had the cart before the horse,” commented Wyoming Livestock Board (WLSB) member Donna Baldwin-Hunt. “We are just now getting our computer system up and running so it communicates with all the offices.”

She continued, “I think that to try to ask for funding to supply tags and equipment before we are ready to implement a program might result in failure. I think, again, we are getting the cart in front of the horse.”

Baldwin-Hunt also advocated for increased interaction with industry to determine what producers feel and if they support traceability efforts. 

“From my perspective, the 2011 bill is a good starting point to have a discussion,” added Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna. “I think we need to go out to industry, but not to have a broad discussion. I think we need to have something more concrete.”

Taking action

Senator Gerald Geis of Worland encouraged the working group members to bring ideas to the Joint Ag Committee meeting, where a bill could be drafted. The bill would allow a concrete idea to be created for further discussion.

“We’ll consider a bill,” he said, “and if we can get one drafted, we have until our September meeting to discuss it before we have to make a final decision and add the dollar values.”

“If we could provide veterinarians and sale barns to buy the equipment or to help reimburse them when they buy equipment,” suggested WLSB member Liz Philp. 

“At our January meeting, I made the motion to seek other funding for sale barns,” added Baldwin-Hunt. “I felt like that was a sensible place to start.”

However, Baldwin-Hunt added, “While looking for funding, we have said this is a voluntary program. Producers have a voluntary program now. If we help the sale barns, that helps everyone.”

Producers in the meeting also agreed that equipping sale barns with the technology would provide the opportunity for producers using the tags to see benefits. 

Jeff Brown of Riverton Livestock Auction commented, “This is about traceability and a way to accomplish our goals. Can we improve traceability? Yes. Do we need to improve it? I don’t know.”

“We are already spending money on this technology,” Brown adds. “This technology looks fairly affordable for larger operations. The problem isn’t the cost of the tags or the readers. The problem is getting the tags in calves.”

Discussions about providing incentives for producers and veterinarians were also held. 

Brown said, “The real incentive is time and labor savings. We run a business and those are the incentives.”

Wyoming direction

“I like the idea of a Wyoming traceability program,” Brown continued. 

Rock River producer Scott Sims added, “This is about disease traceability. If we can trace diseases and protect ourselves as producers so disease events don’t have a devastating effect on us, that is a good idea.”

He also commented that sale barns funding equipment means that costs would come back to producers. Citizens of the state should also have a responsibility, if a state program is developed.

Padlock Ranch’s Trey Patterson says, “I think Wyoming needs a program, and our industry needs to work aggressively. This is not about costs or regulations. It is about protecting the ability to move and market our cattle from Wyoming.”

Patterson viewed the significance of costs in traceability in the success rate of current technology – including reading ability of RFID tags and retention of tags.

“I would recommend moving forward with a partnership between beef producers, industry and the state to do some research and demonstration on products and protocols that accomplish being able to record animals in a way that does not add significant time or labor,” Patterson added.

The need in the industry is for reliable technology in terms of tags and equipment.


After discussion, the TWG decided to recommend that the Legislature’s Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee draft a bill covering equipment funding and a pilot project.

The group looks for the bill to include provisions to provide funding for veterinarians and sale barns to have access to technology.

“I’m not suggesting that we ask for $1 million to build some kind of convoluted program,” says Logan. “I’ve heard from this group that helping the markets and veterinarians to be able to utilize the technology when applicable and bring it back to where it can interface with WLSB capabilities would be advantageous.”

Additionally, Logan marked that he will also recommend that the legislature fund a pilot project involving the livestock industry, technology industry and the state to research the technology and make sure it works for the industry.

Logan will present the information to the Joint Ag Committee at their April 22-23 meeting in Worland.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Traceability test

Wyoming State Veterinarian Jim Logan said, “As part of USDA’s standards, states need to do traceability exercises if they accept federal grant money. We are not mandated to do a traceability test because we did not pursue that funding, but we wanted to do exercises to assess our capabilities.”

In their exercise, Wyoming Livestock Board (WLSB) Interim Director Doug Miyamoto noted several observations.

“The first thing I learned is that we can’t replicate a real emergency situation,” he commented. “Doing drills like this doesn’t work well because our urgency is not matched by the other states and agencies that we cooperate with.”

Additionally, Miyamoto noted, “We do have to rely on a number of other people to get the information we need for traceability.”

After being asked to trace three official animal identification numbers, Miyamoto says they were able to trace one completely back to the ranch and get close on the other two. 

“We can do a decent job if the cattle stay in state,” he adds. “The drill also gave us insight on what we can do to make things more efficient.”

Logan further emphasized that, in Wyoming, he estimated 90 percent of better success on traces in the past. 

“We have been able to find what we are looking for most of the time, but the situations that occur when we can’t cause us really big problems,” Logan said.