Whether or not you speak the language of Texas cattle brands, chances are you've seen one or two and can identify them.
See if you recognize any of these 14 current and historic Texas cattle brands:
Bonds Ranch, Saginaw
Circle Bar Ranch, Truscott
JA Ranch, Palo Duro Canyon
MK Ranch, Cooke County
Pitchfork Land & Cattle Company, Dickens
R.A. Brown Ranch, Throckmorton
Rocker b Ranch, Barnhart
Spade Ranch, Lubbock
Swenson Land & Cattle Company (SMS Ranch), Stamford
O'Connor Ranch, Refugio
Tongue River Ranch, Dumont
Waggoner Ranch, Vernon
King Ranch, Kingsville
Burnett Ranch (The Four Sixes), Guthrie
If you drive through rural Texas for a while passing barbed wire fences that encircle cattle, it won't be long before you encounter the entrance to a ranch. You'll know it when you see it; the name of the property adorns a sign over the drive, preceded by a cattle guard and gate. Along with the ranch name, the sign will usually also have the ranch's cattle brand. It's a common sight in the Lone Star State, and many of the largest and oldest ranches have extremely identifiable brands, such as the world-famous King Ranch in south Texas that has its brand emblazoned on its own edition of Ford pickups. Cattle brands permeate Texan culture and are used not only as insignia but as decor. Graduates of the University of Texas at Austin may recognize some of the brands in this article from seeing them set into the stone of the uppermost perimeter of Garrison Hall on the main mall.
Cattle brands may look like heiroglypics to the untrained eye (and indeed it is a form of pictographic language), but they are not simply for decoration. In the world of interstates and land developers that we live in today, it may be hard to recollect what life was like at the inception of the state of Texas. Open ranges made it hard to tell where one rancher's land ended and another began. The high price of cattle in the midwest combined with the lack of a completed railroad system caused the advent of the cattle drive, and along with it the cattle rustler (that's a thief to those of you who don't speak Texan). Brands were a necessary way to differentiate one man's livestock from his neighbor's, and that is still what they are used for.
In fact, every brand in use by every ranch in the state of Texas, no matter how small, must be registered (along with its location on the livestock) and it must be unique. The language of cattle branding is complex and has its own rules. For example, a letter or number lying on its side is usually referred to as "lazy", whereas a letter or number affixed with a quarter circle at the bottom is called "rocking". It's such a complicated alphabet that the Smithsonian published an article in 2013 that highlights cattle branding lingo in detail.