by Amy Pearson, photos by Loni Judisch
Montana author Ivan Doig is known to have said, “Brands are the classical language of the American West.” The ultimate purpose of a brand is to illustrate and claim one’s ownership over livestock. In the early settlement days, brands were intended to help keep livestock safe from rustlers. Nowadays, brands have come to represent the heritage of a ranch through generations. Each brand is unique and made up of symbols that can tell a story.
Official Montana branding started around 1865 when the first Territorial Legislature passed an act barring two people from using the same brand in one county and requiring them to register that brand. Brand registration became a territory requirement in 1873 and the records from then until 1980 and 2001-2010 have been compiled by the Brands Enforcement Division of the Montana Department of Livestock and digitized by the Montana Historical Society. That history can be viewed at mtmemory.org.
Jim Judisch of the Ledger area has the brand both his father and grandfather had which is Lazy A X. He says he fondly remembers the days when branding was a huge event where families would bring their best dishes for a community gathering. Back then, they’d bring the new calves through the chute and use ropes to drag them into the fire on horseback.
“It used to be one of the best days of the year,” Judisch says. “I miss it, I really do.”
These days, things have changed a little, but the day still remains an occasion to look forward to. Vaccination is now part of their process during branding time, and they work with the calves one by one in the barn. Judisch notes that there are still people doing branding the old-fashioned way, but he says that crews seem smaller and people seem busier.
“Branding is a great day full of sunshine, friends, and noisy cattle,” Judisch’s daughter-in-law Loni says. “What everyone takes away from it is the smoky scent of the fire branding that becomes infused into your skin, hair and clothing.”
“It’s a time that represents new beginnings,” Jim’s son Ross says. “All the spring calves get registered in with the rest of the herd.”
Ross and his wife Loni run a beef retail and wholesale company called Haymaker Beef from the family ranch where they are also raising their three kids to know and experience the timeless traditions of a Montana ranch lifestyle, including branding. Loni’s beautiful photographs from their spring 2022 branding are featured here.