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Matthew Staver

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In the chill of a damp spring morning, ranchers at the Bledsoe ranch in Hugo, Colo., castrate, vaccinate and brand young calves.

All photographs by Matthew Staver for The Wall Street Journal.

J.D. Schier watches cows walk into a different pen after ranchers branded calves with the ‘frying pan’ brand on the Bledsoe ranch on May 12.

Bill Bledsoe holds the hot branding iron, as Dallas Loutzenhiser, left, J.D. Schier and Wil Bledsoe help hold down the calf. The ranchers’ practiced motions take just 60 to 90 seconds per animal.

Two red-hot branding irons are pressed to the flank of a calf to leave the signature mark.

Branding day has unfolded this way for generations on ranches all across the West. But ranchers from Colorado to Oregon, from Montana to Texas, worry that the tradition is under threat.

A sign along the fence-line near a home on the Bledsoe ranch shows a few different brands, along the bottom, including the ‘frying pan’ brand the ranchers used that morning.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced plans to rewrite its regulations so that hot-iron brands will no longer be recognized as an official form of identification for cattle sold or shipped across state lines

Instead, the USDA wants every cow to have a unique numerical ID, stamped on an inexpensive ear tag, to make it easier to track individual animals from ranch to feedlot to slaughterhouse. Here, Wil Bledsoe counts cows after they branded calves.

The proposed regulation won’t bar ranchers from branding their livestock. Individual states will be free to recognize brands as official ID if they so choose. Here, a recently branded calf at Bledsoe ranch is back out in a pen.

‘When government steps in, they like to make things more complex,’ Wil Bledsoe said. ‘Branding’s the simplest, most efficient way to do it. Why change?’ Here, Wil Blesdoe heads back for lunch after a morning of branding calves.

All photographs by Matthew Staver for The Wall Street Journal.

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