Behind the Brand: Understanding Cattle Brands

A quick guide to help decipher the unique language of livestock identification.

Jun 29, 2023 | Hall and Hall
Behind the Brand:  Understanding Cattle Brands

Cattle branding has been a method used in livestock identification for centuries. It marks ownership allowing for the sale and purchase of livestock, helps with sorting in free-range country, and helps deter theft, aka cattle rustling. Understanding cattle brands can initially seem complex, but you can decipher the unique language with some knowledge and practice.

Brands are made up of individual symbols and several different types. Below are the most common symbols used in cattle brands:

Introduction to Branding Symbols


Any letter of the alphabet, capitalized or not.


Digits from 0 to 9.


Circles, squares, hearts, diamonds, etc.


Straight lines either placed under, over, or through other symbols.

Quarter Circle, Half Circle, and Circle

These are used alone or in combination with other symbols.

Slash and Reverse Slash

Diagonal lines used alone or with other symbols.

Flying and Lazy

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. Different regions may have their own terminology or variations when it comes to describing symbols and their orientation.

Where a brand is placed on the animal can hold significance:

Brand Placement


The area between the neck and the midpoint of the back.


The area between the shoulder and the hip.


The area from the midpoint of the back to the tail.

The areas of placement for the brands can differ amongst the different types of animals and regions depending upon local branding laws, historical practices, practical considerations for identification, or cultural preferences.

The order of interpretation for the letters and symbols is important.

Reading of a Brand

Left to Right

Top to Bottom

Outside to Inside

Some brands use combinations of symbols to create complex brands.

Complex Brand Symbols

Connected or Combined Letters

Letters can be connected or overlapped to form a symbol.


A symbol or set of symbols enclosed by a half-circle or curve on the bottom.

Swinging or Hanging

A symbol or set of symbols enclosed by a half-circle or curve on the top.


A symbol or set of symbols enclosed by a square or rectangle.

Brand Registration

Brands must be registered with a state or local brand inspection agency. A brand must be unique and not easily alterable to resemble another brand. Some states have online brand directories where you can look up registered brands.

Branding Techniques

There are two primary methods of branding cattle today: hot branding and freeze branding. Hot branding uses a heated iron to burn a mark into the hide of the cattle. Freeze branding uses super-cooled irons to destroy the pigment-producing cells, causing the hair to grow back white.