Deciphering the cryptic code of cattle brands - Beef Central (2024)

Dick Sternberg and Sean Morrissey with the Morrisey & Co forge at Jandowae where tens of thousands of cattle brands have been forgedover thepast 100 years.

From lazy As and tumbling Bs to crazy Ys and rocking Zs, reading cattle brands is like deciphering a cryptic code.

Beyond simple marks of identification and deterrents to cattle theft, brands have evolved into alanguage of their own.

Various alterations to letters, numbers and symbols have been adopted over the years to ensure any single or three-piece brand remains unique and different toany other, creating along the way a distinctive dialect that is all but unknown outside the industry.

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American ‘Life’ magazine once described cattle brands as “pyro-glyphics”, neatly capturing the confounding nature of cattle brand language to outsiders.

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Letters and numbers can be lazy (lying down), crazy (upside down), flying (with wings attached), walking (with feet attached), tumbling (tilted at 45 degrees), rocking (sitting in an upturned half-circle), open (ie an A minus its internal horizontal bar), connected, reversed, scripted and scrolled, to name just some of the variations.

Asimple letter ‘A’ for example can take many forms, as illustrated in the picture at right:

Brands can also incorporate various visual devices such as angles, bars, brackets, cranks, curves, circles, crowns, crosses, rails, slashes and many more.

When it comes to decoding cattle brands, the basic rule is that they are read from left to right (ie N P), from top to bottom (ie bar F, inverted crown C), and, when enclosed in another symbol, from outside in (ie Circle S, Diamond J, Box T).

Some brands also offer a revealing nod to the creativity and playfulness of their originators.

For example, see if you can work out what the below brands (originally published on the Modern Farmer website) mean (answers below article):

Five generations of brand makers

Sean, Chris and Tom Morrissey still produce hand-forge branding irons and calf cradles in the same Jandowae shed where Morrissey & Co has operated since 1910.

One person with no shortage of experience in reading brands is Sean Morrissey, a fourth generation blacksmith from the Darling Downs town of Jandowae, north of Dalby.

In times gone by local blacksmiths like Sean could be found sweating over forges in every country town.

Today traditional brand makers are far fewer and further between, but strong demand for their services remains, with cattle branding still an important way of identifying cattle and discouraging cattle theft. In fact in Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, cattle branding remains compulsory by law.

Just some of the many brands forged by Morrissey & Co in Jandowae.

The Morrissey family has been hand-forging cattle brands on the Darling Downs since the 1800s.

“Morrissey & Co” is today a leading brand in the world of cattle brands in its own right.

Morrissey irons and calf cradles are used acrossAustralia, including on some of thebiggest and best known stations in the country. Among Sean’s favourites are the elegantly simple “Wineglass” brand of the Consolidated Pastoral Company and the iconic “Bar SK” brand of S Kidman and Co.

Customers over the years have even included some famous names in theUnited States cattle industry including the Rockefellers and Hudgins.

Sean Morrissey with a selection of Morrissey cattle brands

The Morrissey dynasty started in Australia when John Morrissey from Cork in Ireland travelled to Australia and became a blacksmith, farrier and wheel wright at Jimbour Station, then a vast Darling Downs pastoral run carrying some 300,000 sheep.

In 1910 John’s son Daniel established Morrissey & Co in Jandowae.

For more than 100 years the anvil has been passed down from father to son.

So what has changed in the way the Morrisseys make cattle brands today, compared to how John Morrissey made brands back in the 1800s?

Very little.

The old and the new – electrical grinders have replaced manual equipment but the traditional hammer and anvil remain integral to the blacksmithing operations of Morrissey & Co.

Manual power has given way to electrical power for some tasks such as grinding, while wrought iron has been replaced with stainless steel as the material of choice. But other than that, brands are still hand made the same way there were a century ago. How many products can still claim that?

Why stainless steel? Sean’s father John, better known as Jack, was the first in Australia to introduce stainless steel brands.

The move was motivated after properties began using gas burners instead of wood fires to heat brands. The intense heat caused the wrought iron brands to wear away much faster. Stainless steel provided a more durable, longer lasting brand.

With cattle prices rising, there are also signs some producers are moving back to branding.

“We have had some customers from the Southern States come in and say we have had cattle going missing in recent times, so we have started to brand again, even though it is not compulsory” he said.

“If you are only relying on an ear tag or an NLIS tag, they can be cut out.”

The language of cattle brands could be around for a long time to come.

Indeed, a fifth generation of Morrisseys is now forging a path in the trade, with Sean and Chris’ youngest son Thomas currently working in the family operation and eldest son John and daughter Sally working on a cattle station in Queensland’s Gulf Country.

Dick Sternberg worked for Dan Morrissey, then Jack, and now Sean (right). For 60 years he has been an indispensable member of the Morrissey & Co team.

The answers!


Deciphering the cryptic code of cattle brands - Beef Central (2024)


How do you read cattle brand symbols? ›

Brands are read from left to right, from the top down or from the outside to the inside.
  • If a letter or symbol is made backwards from its normal position, it's read as a reverse.
  • A letter partially over on its face or back is said to be tumbling.
  • If a letter lies horizontally on its face or back, it is called lazy.

What are the numbers for branding cattle? ›

Brand #2: Animal Identification Number

The sequence then followed with branding as 1/1 (read One over One), with the bottom number representing the thousands. So, animal 123/4 (One Twenty-Three over Four) is the 4,123rd animal born on the ranch.

What are the elements of a cattle brand? ›

At its most basic, a cattle brand is composed of a few simple letters and numbers, possibly in combination with a basic shape or symbols like a line, circle, heart, arc, or diamond.

What is the flying symbol in cattle brand? ›

Used to describe the orientation or tilt of a symbol. A “flying” symbol is tilted with the top pointing toward the direction of the tilt, while a “lazy” symbol is tilted with the top pointing away from the direction of the tilt. These terms are not universally used in all regions or for all types of livestock branding.

How do you read cattle numbers? ›

This system utilizes a three- or four-digit number for each animal. The first number represents the year of birth. The remaining numbers represent the individual animal's own number.

How do you identify cattle brands? ›

Brands are read left to right, top to bottom, or outside to inside, and the orientation and form of the letter or number make up part of its name. Brands are often combinations of characters and symbols and can also be identified by shapes like diamonds, circles, bars, rails + more. Backward characters are “reversed.”

What is the value of branding cattle with an identifying mark? ›

Branding is the main method of permanent identification and proof of ownership for livestock. This is particularly important in the western United States, where cattle from multiple ranches are run together or in bordering pastures.

What does lazy mean in a ranch name? ›

“Lazy” isn't a ranch designation, but rather how the ranch's brand is oriented when applied to the animal. “Lazy” means the brand is slanted at an angle rather than straight up and down, or horizontally. It doesn't speak to the rancher's , or the ranch hands work ethic .

What is the best cattle identification? ›

In addition to listing the approximate age, gender, and breed of the animal, use one or more of the following identification methods:
  • Official eartag (1.59 MB).
  • Individual animal's registration tattoo accompanied by the official registration certificate issued by a recognized breed association.

Where is the best place to brand cattle? ›

In the Northwest, the calf's side/rib was the most common place for producers to place brands, while in other regions, it was the upper hip.

What does bar mean in cattle brand? ›

Bar: a short horizontal line that can be used at the top, bottom or middle of a brand. Rail: about twice as long as a bar, may have letters sitting or resting above it. Two rails. Three rails are read as stripes. Four rails are read as pigpen.

What is brand symbol? ›

A brand symbol may be a part of a company's main logo, or it can be a symbol that's part of your greater brand identity. A brand symbol can also be the only representation of your company, serving as its main logo.

Is cattle branding illegal? ›

Legal Branding Helps ID Cattle

Today fencing is more prevalent, but branding is still used to identify cattle and deter thieves. A rancher's brand will be recognized on stolen cattle. Legal brands are registered with county or state authorities. Some states require re-registration of the brand at various intervals.

What is the language of cattle brands? ›

Brands have a language all their own.

The ability to read these symbols is referred to as "callin' the brand." Brands are composed of capital letters of the alphabet, numerals, pictures, and characters such as slash /, circle O, half-‐circle, cross +, _bar, etc., with many combinations and adaptations.

Do they still brand cattle with hot iron? ›

Modern use includes gas heating, the traditional fire-heated method, an iron heated by electricity (electric cattle branding iron) or an iron super cooled by dry ice (freeze branding iron). Cattle, horses and other livestock are commonly branded today for the same reason they were in Ancient times, to prove ownership.

What are the markings on cattle? ›

Tagging usually uses numbering system as a way to identify animals in a herd. It does this by putting together a letter and number to represent the year born and the birth order, then the tag is either attached to the animal's ear or to some form of neck collar.

What does the bar mean in cattle brands? ›

Its a brand. It's branded on the hide to prove ownership with hot iron. Many brands have what you call a hyphen, its a horizontal line. On a livestock brand this horizontal line is called a bar.

How do you identify livestock marks? ›

Background. Radiofrequency identification device (RFD) ear tags and rumen implants are the most humane methods of accurately identifying cattle. Where branding is necessary in many situations, the use of freeze branding is recommended in preference to hot-iron branding for permanent identification.

What do branding symbols mean? ›

A brand symbol may be a part of a company's main logo, or it can be a symbol that's part of your greater brand identity. A brand symbol can also be the only representation of your company, serving as its main logo.

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