Brand inspectors have been on the job longer than Colorado has been a state.
The livestock industry formed the brand board in 1865, when Colorado was still a territory; the brand board became a state agency in the early 1900s and became a division of the Colorado Department of Agriculture in the 1970s.
Some things haven't changed over all those years; a hot iron remains the most common method of branding. But change is coming to the Brand Inspection Division as it gallops into the 21st century.
Brand inspectors have a simple goal: to protect Colorado's $3 billion livestock industry from loss by theft or straying. A brand is considered the animal's return address. While branding of livestock isn't mandatory in Colorado, brand inspections are. Inspections are required before the sale or transfer of ownership of cattle, horses, mules and donkeys and in certain other situations, such as when livestock are taken out of the state.
While many horses aren't branded, most cattle are. "I'd be shocked if less than 90 percent of cattle are branded," Brand Commissioner Chris Whitney said.
Some horse owners, he said, "will say, in all good faith, I didn't get a brand inspection because my horse isn't branded. It's not really a brand inspection; it's a livestock inspection." In the absence of a brand, an inspector will include a detailed physical description and seek other evidence of ownership.
Animals who have been branded have likely had a close encounter with that hot iron; freeze branding is the second most common method.
"There's plenty of conversation about whether one is more painful than the other," Whitney said. A freeze brand is less painful on contact, "but some experts say it is more painful when healing." There are also challenges with freeze branding, Whitney said; it requires contact with the hide for 12 to 13 seconds, "and that's a long time for an animal to stand still."
So why not high-tech options, like microchipping?
"First of all, it's expensive by comparison," Whitney said. And while a brand inspector might spot a brand from a distance, he has to be close to use a microchip reader. Plus, Whitney said, "as far as I know, there's no place you can put a chip in the cow where it won't move. So even if you stuck it in the neck, it doesn't mean it's going to stay there. So finding it to read is a problem." Plus there's the worry someone might bite into their hamburger and get a bit of extra crunch by biting into a microchip.
Horses are different, though; there's a ligament in a horse's neck where a microchip will stay in place.
The Brand Inspection Division is in the process of getting microchip readers for the state's 55 or so brand inspectors. While microchipping won't be used solely to establish ownership, Whitney said, it does provide "a further link between you and the horse."
Whitney noted another big change coming to the division. "We're in the process of converting from paper brand inspection certificates to electronic certificates." So brand inspectors will eventually be carrying tablets into the field.
"It's an interesting time for us," Whitney said. While he said it may be a challenge for some inspectors used to the old ways, "at the end of the day it will be more accurate, it will be quicker, and the data will be more accessible."
Whitney, who lives in Black Forest (and has a long commute to the division's offices in Broomfield), has been brand commissioner since 2011. He was born in New York and spent most of his childhood on the East Coast; he was in high school when his family moved to Colorado, where they had a ranch in Ridgeway - and where Whitney developed an affinity for the country life.
"I love horses," he said. "I always have."
Whitney served in the Air Force where, after serving in Vietnam, he became a translator on the presidential hotline. He had studied Russian at the University of Colorado in Boulder and had visited the Soviet Union several times.
Why the interest in Russian and Eastern Europe? "I don't know," Whitney said. "Maybe I thought I wanted to be James Bond; I was always fascinated by it."
After the Air Force, Whitney received his law degree from Georgetown University and spent more than 30 years practicing law in Washington, D.C., Colorado Springs and elsewhere.
Now, as brand commissioner - and with a horse and donkey to tend to - he can again scratch that country itch. He has a registered brand, though it's not on his horse, which was previously branded; the new brand is one of more than 34,000 in Colorado.
"I did it because it's a part of what Colorado is. ... Our brands are personal property; they're deeded, so I'll pass this on to my family. If they never put it on anything, that's OK. It's the feel of it and the culture of it and what it stands for that I like about it."