Cattle Brands Explained (And How To Read Them)

Most livestock is marked in some way to help identify them, but one method of marking stands out above the rest as the most stereotypical and controversial – ‘Branding’.

Branding cattle is a method of creating a unique identifier on livestock to deter theft and help with identification. Farmers use a hot iron to cause a permanent scar on the animal so that it can’t be removed or forged. Each farm or ranch has a unique brand identifier and a unique location on the cow where they brand their cattle.

In this article, we’ll learn more about cattle branding, including what a brand is, why farmers use brands when there are more modern tracking methods available, and how to read a brand marking if you see one on a cow.

Cattle Brands Explained

What Is A Cattle Brand?

You’ve probably seen cattle brands before, either in real life or in any western movie. 

Cattle brands are unique markings that ranches and farms apply to their cattle, through a process of either extreme heat or extreme cold, which creates a permanent identifying mark on the cow’s skin.

Farmers have been branding their cattle to track ownership for almost 5,000 years. According to The Smithsonian, the earliest recorded evidence of a cattle brand was found in Egyptian Hieroglyphics and dates from 2,700BC.

Modern cattle brands are made up of two or more stylized letters and numbers, which uniquely identify the ranch that the cattle are from.

The letters are usually uppercase Latin characters or numbers, which are either combined with another letter or number, such as a letter F placed on top of a number 4 to create a new, unique symbol.

The embellishments on the characters can be as simple as adding an extra line, or serif to the characters, or as complicated as merging two characters together. 

Related Article: What is a head of cattle?

Why Do Farmers Brand Cattle?

Farmers brand their cattle mostly to prove their ownership. Cattle brands are permanent and are designed in such a way that they can’t be easily overwritten so they are a permanent record of who owns the cattle.

Let’s take a look at some of the reasons ranchers brand their cattle:

1: Branding Proves Ownership

Cattle brands are unique identifiers that identify which farmer, ranch, or company owns the cattle. Especially in places where cows are allowed to graze freely, cattle brands are necessary to work out which animals belong to each farm in the event that multiple farms’ cattle get mixed together.

Brands are Permanent Identification, so even once cattle has changed hands multiple times, the brand proves where the cow came from originally.

Some farms and ranches will add their own brand to bought cattle, creating a sort of physical paper trail that helps track the ownership of cattle as they are bought and sold, and provide traceability for buyers.

2: Brands Prevent Cattle Rustling and Deter Cattle Thieves

Cattle brands are designed in such a way that they can not be overwritten to create a new brand. The brand marking is usually made up of two or more letters and numbers, but with embellishments that make them unique.

For example, if a brand was 7F, a cattle rustler could steal the cow and overwrite the brand with a couple of extra lines to change it to ZE. Cattle brands have special markings (usually additional lines at certain places on the letters) to make it impossible to overwrite them without creating a mess.

Cows are extremely expensive, so it’s important for farmers to protect their herds.

3: Cattle Tag Redundancy

Branding cattle is permanent. It works by permanently scarring the animal with a hot iron or by damaging the hair follicles with super low temperatures to make the hair over the brand grow in a different color (usually white).

The permanence of cattle brands means it provides an additional layer of redundancy over cattle tags, GPS markers and other ownership identifiers. Cows can chew each other’s cattle tags off, but they can’t get rid of a brand.

Why Don’t Farmers Just Use Tags/GPS Instead?

Farmers do use GPS tags on their cattle, and all cows are tagged in their ear with a tag showing their genetic heritage, date of birth, vaccination status, and where they come from. 

Some cows also have RFID chips in them that allows the farmer to scan them and measure all sorts of data including how often they eat and sleep.

Read More: Cow Sleeping Habits

Cattle brands are supplemental to tags and gps trackers, and provide an additional layer of security to the farmer. GPS trackers can be removed, either by accident or intentionally, and tags can fall out. Brands are permanent and are a sort of backup system for the farmer to identify their cattle.

How To Read Cattle Brands 

Cattle brands are usually made up of two letters, numbers, or symbols.

There is no universal method to read cattle brands, they are simply a method of proving ownership for cattle. Each farm or ranch can come up with their own unique brand marking. In some jurisdictions brands must be made up from a set of predefined symbols, pictures, or markings but this isn’t the case everywhere.

In Texas, where cattle branding is prevalent, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association has a complete guide to allowable brand markings and options, which includes numbers, letters, symbols, and pictures in various configurations.

Do All Cows Have Brands?

Cattle branding is usually not legislated for, as cattle can be more easily identified nowadays by ear tags, which contain a unique number linking to a digital file with all required information called a cattle passport or cow passport.

According to Oklahoma State University, cattle branding is not mandatory, and the USDA’s preferred method for identifying cattle is by means of an RFID ear tag.

As is usually the case with this sort of thing, the legislators and the farmers on the ground tend to disagree, and although the authorities prefer ID tags, farmers appreciate the permanence of cattle brands.


To sum up, cattle brands are permanent markings that are seared into the side of cattle. The brands are unique to each farm or ranch and are made up of a series of letters, symbols, or pictures that are difficult to forge.

Cattle brands are useful for farmers to identify their own cows quickly, deter cattle thieves, and as a means of tracking the ownership record of cattle as they are traded.

Although cattle brands have largely been replaced by ear tags, RFID chips and GPS trackers, farmers still appreciate the permanence of cattle brands. 

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