The business of brands

Northwest Colorado brand inspector's job keeps him on the mooove

The frost is still on the ground as the wranglers begin herding small groups of heifer calves toward the scales. The sun won't crest the hilltop before the first 20 head are weighed and moved off of the scales.

One of the men watching the operation is paying particular attention to the calves, right rear-quarters as they leave the scales on the Deakins Ranch. His name is Brad Ocker, and he is the brand inspector for Northwest Colorado, a position he has held for nine years.

"I look at every single critter. I make sure it's got that X on it," he said. "I make sure none of the neighbors' brands are in here. If they are, we cut it out and get it back to its owner."

Ocker works for the brand commissioner in Denver, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Colorado has 50 brand inspectors, and their job is to inspect the brands of all cattle and horses that are being transported more than 75 miles, changing ownership or crossing state lines. It's a job that keeps Ocker occupied.

"This time of year it's really busy. About the end of August people started shipping yearlings," he said. "We started weighing at 7:30 this morning. I need to be at my next stop by 11 o'clock."

Ocker covers the area from Hayden to Utah, and from Hamilton to Wyoming.

At the Deakins Ranch south of Lay, 300 heifer calves have been separated from the herd to be shipped to a farmer-feeder in Columbus, Neb.

The calves will be fed all winter and be "market ready" next June or July, when they will weigh between 1,200 and 1,250 pounds.

On Tuesday, the steers will be shipped to a wheat farm in Oklahoma, where they will spend the winter, and Ocker will be back to look at them.

"If it's one calf, or one horse, I have to go," he said. "One calf or 1,000, it doesn't mater."

Growing up in Snyder, about five miles north of Brush, Ocker began working at a sales barn when he was 13 years old. After spending time in the service, college and Montana, Ocker took the brand test for inspectors in La Junta.

"There were really several tests. There is a 300-question written test," Ocker said. "Then there is a performance test. They put 15 cattle in a pen, and you have 10 minutes to read all the brands."

After passing the test, Ocker found himself in Moffat County, and in big demand.

Before moving cattle to market, people call him and set up an appointment to have the brands inspected, and they had better call early.

"After we get them sold, we call and get a time for the inspector to come out," Tom Deakins said. "If a person doesn't get on the books, they get too busy."

Deakins has been selling to the same buyer for several years, and has plenty of help on shipping day.

A former brand inspector of 35 years, Floyd Martin is riding through the herd, cutting out 20 heifers at a time to move onto the scales. He often helps Deakins and other outfits when it's shipping time.

"After weighing, we have a vet coming. We'll preg-test them, and mouth them, vaccinate, cut horns and ear-tag some," Martin said. "It will be pretty late when we get done today. Then we do it all again Tuesday with the steers."

The one exception to the brand-inspecting rule is when animals are sold in a sales ring. They can be checked at that location before the sale, Ocker said.

Brand inspectors are required to endure the toughest of conditions in their line of work.

In late September, Ocker checked brands as workers loaded 18 semi-trucks with cattle, all in a snowstorm.

"You were wet and cold by the time you were done on that day," he said.

In this age of computers and instant information-sharing, Ocker said that technology hasn't reached his business yet.

"They give you a rope and a pair of clippers when you pass the test," he said. "That's your tools."

Whether one calf, or the 26 semi-truckloads Ocker recently checked, each hauling 65 to 70 head per truck, the job keeps him moving.

It will be mid-January before things slow down for the state's brand inspectors. By the time April comes and the grass is turning green, bulls are being moved and business picks up again.

Ocker said the best part of his job is working with ranchers.

"Every rancher has a different personality, but they are all great to work with," he said. "Generally, most are on time and ready when I show up."

The worst part is reaching some locations in the winter in the two-wheel drive truck he is supplied with.

"If it's 30 below zero, and the roads are slick with ice, I still have to go," he said.

Changing brands on cattle, as seen in Hollywood movies, is a thing of the past, Ocker said.

"Only one time in my nine years did I see an altered brand," Ocker said. "We sent him to jail."

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