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Our Livestock Cop: New Boulder County Brand Inspector Relishes Legacy Job

September 8, 2018
Our Livestock Cop: New Boulder County Brand Inspector Relishes Legacy Job

Brand inspector Chris Mace prepares to record the markings on Landitta for owner Lori Oakley. The Brand Inspection Division employs 58 brand inspectors throughout the state, including 10 supervisors. To see more pictures, visit timescall.com.

An old Colorado brand inspector badge rides along as a silent partner with Chris Mace as he cruises Boulder County dirt roads in his white, state-issued Ford 150 pickup stuffed with high-tech tools — a thermal printer, a microchip reader, a tablet and even a blue-and-red strobe if he needs to make a stop.

No bigger than the bottom of a coffee mug, the badge sits larger than life beside him in the cab propped against navy blue regulation manuals, each thicker than two bibles.

The ex-Marine bought it online this year for $250 after retiring in 2017 from the Denver Police Department to become one of Colorado’s 58 brand inspectors known as livestock cops.

“I was willing to go up to $500 because the way I see it, this badge traveled more than 100 years to get back here,” Mace, 47, said after it surfaced at an estate sale in Peculiar, Mo.

To him, the badge is a bookmark — the best connection he could find to the esprit de corps the old timers shared as they worked on horseback when Colorado livestock owners created the job around 1865 — more than a decade before Colorado’s statehood in 1876.

Brand inspectors today work in a Colorado Department of Agriculture division to protect the state’s $3 billion livestock industry from losses due to theft or straying. They consider brands an animal’s “return address” — a confirmation of ownership.

So, they log a million miles annually across 10 supervisory districts in a 104,000-square mile territory to manage about 34,000 brands stamped on 4 million head of livestock, according to the division’s website.

Like automobiles in modernity, these animals must be bought and sold with an official bill of sale and certificate of ownership much like a car title.

Otherwise, the state considers the property hot, Mace said.

By law, owners of cattle, calves, horses, mules, donkeys, burros and, when requested, sheep must get their animals inspected before any change of ownership by gift or sale; before transport of more than 75 miles instate or any distance over state lines; and before transport to sale or to slaughter, according to the division’s website.

Let the buyer beware, Mace said.

On one call, he met a person who paid $500 for a horse at a gas station on the outskirts of his district in Platteville.

“She had a bill of sale written for her on a bar napkin, but no certificate of ownership,” Mace explained. ”... People think that horse thieving and cattle rustling don’t go on anymore. But it’s still done. Last year, 655 cattle and 29 horses went missing. And one is one too many.”

Real world consequences

Some of that perception pops up in the growing gap between farm to table, said Dustin Goodew, owner of Arapahoe Meat Co. — a small Lafayette slaughterhouse with the tagline, “Killin, chillin and grillin since 1989.”

He recalled a famous Colorado rancher — former U.S. senator and Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar — who reported two truckloads of his cattle stolen earlier this year.

“It would be the wild west without brand inspectors asking where animals came from, where they are going and are all sales and purchases legit,” Goodew said.

Fines range from $200 to $1,000 with prospective jail time related to conviction of a failure to get a brand inspection, which is a misdemeanor, according to the division’s website.

Nevertheless, rodeo operators still stop by Arapahoe Meat Co. occasionally to sell a steer with a broken hip or leg after a show in order to salvage some money, Goodew said.

“But without that paperwork, we can’t do business. It would jeopardize our license. And that’s too bad because I love these animals and don’t want to see them go to waste,” he said. ”... In that case, at least we were able to track the owner downstate and get a bill of sale.”

Another time a person tried to sell him a cow with a prolapsed uterus for the same reason.

“But again, without that brand inspection, I couldn’t do anything,” Goodew said. ”... It’s important for the State of Colorado to remind people why this system still exists. It still exists to keep the industry accountable and profitable.”

Part of that effort also involves finding and returning stray animals to their rightful owners.

That might be easy to do when the animals in question happen to be the neighbor’s Ankole-Watusi cattle with their distinctive long horns, Mace said.

“But it’s a whole different thing when it’s a bunch of black angus,” he added. “If it’s just black steers, they better have a brand.”

And that is exactly the description Ida (Hall) Hoffman shared with Mace on Aug. 28 when he arrived at her place between Longmont and Lyons to inspect some miniature milk cows she raises for her raw dairy share business.

She pointed out a few grazing on a nearby hillside.

Mace noted that he sees plenty of strays because Colorado, despite all its Front Range development, is still an open range state. That means ranchers and farmers fence out animals versus fencing them in, he said.

Sometimes the trouble is fences need mending. Other times natural disasters, such as wildland fires, cause livestock to flee beyond their usual areas.

The brand clearly identifies strays, no matter how nondescript they may otherwise be. This explains why Hoffman brands her cattle with a lazy H over a bracket.

“It gives me more security,” she said. “I like having that return address.”

Brand inspector basics

Mace, who works in a Wrangler shirt and Wrangler jeans under a dusty black felt cowboy hat, grew up in the Fort Lupton area raising cattle and horses and still lives there. So, he understands the law from the other side of the inspection process Brand Commissioner Chris Whitney, said.

“And that’s the common denominator for good brand inspectors,” he said. “You can’t be a computer programmer from New York and transition into being a brand inspector overnight. But I still get applicants who believe they’ve got experience with cattle because they watched old westerns on TV when they were younger.”

“God love ‘em,” he continued. “But that is like saying you want to be an astronaut after watching ‘Apollo 13.’ ... This job is not just about reading a brand. It’s about having good people skills and knowing how to move around livestock and how to move with them.”

Holly Golen, 62, is the veteran Boulder County brand inspector who splits the area with Mace. She covers calls on the south side of Colo. 7, and he covers calls on the north side, she said.

The Wheat Ridge resident added that the two best things about brand inspection for her include watching the reunions she brokers between animals and owners and extending her father’s 52-year legacy as a brand inspector for the Glendevey district in northwestern Larimer County.

“Following in his footsteps is a highlight,” Golen said.

Whitney noted that the best brand inspectors take this kind of pride in their work and consider it a mission of not only law enforcement, but also of education.

“Most people would like to get it right,” he said. “But some don’t because they’re not familiar with Colorado’s livestock laws.”

So, brand inspectors must bring a service-oriented mindset to their work and a sense of humor to boot.

When a farmer southwest of Hygiene showed up almost an hour late for a donkey inspection and couldn’t produce all of the paperwork required, Mace graciously rescheduled.

“Gather all of it for me next time, OK?” he said. “This will be a ‘to be continued’ appointment. Sound like a plan?”

Then, he stepped back into his office, the one with the windshield window and million dollar views.

“I’ve always wanted to be a brand inspector, always thought it was where I really belonged. And lo and behold it finally worked out,” Mace said. “Now, I get to work at a job I really love. Every day I see beautiful places I’ve never seen before. And if you’re a rancher or farmer at some point you’re going to invite me over to your place just like they did for the original law men here in the mid-1800s. I feel lucky.”

Pam Mellskog can be reached at Mellskog@msn.com or 303-746-0942.

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