HELENA — On the banks of the Gallatin River lies a farm and ranch owned and worked by the Nerlin family. All things considered, it’s been a pretty mild spring calving season for Montana ranchers. The Nerlins, like many ranches, are now wrapping the season up with vaccinations and branding.
Branding may not be the most glamorous work, but it’s important and for the Nerlin family it’s a way to carry on a century-old legacy.
“The ‘6 hanging N’ has been in our family for-- well I’ll be the fifth-generation Montanan,” said Tom Nerlin. “I didn’t even think about it until our great uncle Junior Nerlin decided that since [my wife] Kallie and I were getting married, he said as a wedding gift have the “6 handing N’ and I had no idea the significance of it then."
The “6 hanging N” brand was originally used by the first Nerlins to homestead in Montana near Joliet. The six represented the two parents and four children of the original family.
There are nearly 56,000 livestock brands registered in Montana. Each one tells a story and has a legacy all its own.
The “Square and Compass” brand is Montana’s oldest recorded brand. It’s the first brand shown in the book kept by the Cleark of the Supreme Court of Montana Territory and was recording in 1872 by Poindexter and Orr of Beaverhead County. The brand is still in use to this day.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition also had their own brand, although it would have been used to mark packing crates rather than livestock.
President Theodore Rosevelt had the “Elkhorn” brand registered with the state of Montana. Roosevelt’s ranch was located in North Dakota, not that far from the Montana border.
Every ten years the Montana Department of livestock records brands from across the state. They are currently in the midst of re-registering tens of thousands of unique brands.
“We’ve got a flood of rerecord paperwork to go through right now,” said Brands Administrator Ethan Wilfore.
Each brand submitted for approval goes through a process to make sure they’re not copying another already registered brand and that they’re clearly distinguishable from others.
While there are other ways to indicate ownership of livestock, brands are the standard for Montana due to the difficulty of forging a brand on an animal.
“The reason they’re the only officially accepted form of identification in the state is they are more difficult to fake,” explained Wilfore.
Cattle rustling is still a significant problem in many parts of Big Sky Country, particularly the eastern part of the state. Livestock are worth a lot of money, and brands help investigators identify when an animal is being sold illegally.
“It’s really the whole purpose of brands and why they’re so important. They serve as evidence and taken at first glance until proven otherwise,” added Wilfore.
For the Nerlins, branding is more than just a way to identify the owners of the animals. Friends and neighbors come to help out, just as the Nerlins have helped them in the past.
“We could do this by ourselves but it would be awfully hard,” explained Roger Nerlin. “The neighbor kids come down and they help us.”
The Saturday before Easter this year also proved to be a particularly beautiful day for branding compared to prior years.
“Usually we’re out in our parkas in a blizzard or we’re out here slopping around in a food of mud,” added Roger.
Branding also happens to be an excellent opportunity for the next generation of ranchers to get some hands-on experience.
Calla Donnelly and Alecia Gonzalez helped with loading cattle into the chute and learned how to give vaccinations to the animals. Both teenage girls have a passion for agriculture and were thankful for the opportunity.
“I’m looking at going into animal science, being a veterinarian or really just working outside with animals,” said Gonzalez. “I’m really interested in the genetics of cattle and livestock.”
“I’d really just like to thank Roger for welcoming us and supporting our family. Helping him out has really just become, less of helping him out but more an opportunity to learn,” said Calla Donnelly.
The Nerlins said they’re happy to provide the opportunity.
“It’s not a job when you’re out here having fun,” said Tom Nerlin. “You don’t get that education anymore and being able to get hands-on experience with it is the best education these kids can get.”
The “6 hanging N” brand looks to have a long future in the hands of Tom Nerlin and possibly even into the next generation. His young son Ty loves just about everything farming and ranching.
“I hope when he’s my age he’ll get the passion for it like I do and keep on the tradition,” added Tom.
The Montana Historical Society has a collection of Montana’s historic brands from 1873 through 1980 as part of the Montana Memory Project for families to use as research. More information can be found here.