The Colorado Department of Agriculture’s 158-year-old Brand Inspection Division will release the latest edition of the Colorado Brand Book in the next few weeks. Published every five years, the novel-size tome is an encyclopedia of the nearly 30,000 horse and cattle brands registered in the Centennial State. Why so many? After all, there are only 13,000 cattle producers in all of Colorado. There are two main reasons, says state brand commissioner Chris Whitney. The first is that many brands aren’t even owned by ranchers—people use them as the Western version of a family crest that can be passed down to future generations. The second is that each one has to be unique. With only 26 letters, eight digits (ones and zeros look too much like I’s and O’s), and 30-some symbols to work with, this has led to an alphabet utterly unique to cattle culture. To help you decipher these cowboy hieroglyphics, we break down how to “call the brand,” from your Walking A’s to your Lazy Z’s.

Hüseyin Tuncer/Getty Images (cowhide). Illustrations by Sean Parsons

Called “K”

First Recorded in Colorado 1899
Single-letter brands have been around the longest because they were the first to get snatched up. Since brands are private property, they can be bought and sold, and the older the brand, the more it will fetch. “They can go for $100 or $100,000,” Whitney says.

Called “C B S”

First Recorded in Colorado 2019
When brands have more than one letter, number, or symbol, the fast and loose rules are to read each line from left to right, from the top down. This brand is read like the television network, but if the S were level with the C, it would be C S B.

Called “Lazy P Hanging K”

First Recorded in Colorado 1945
Ranchers have developed a distinct alphabet that goes far beyond your traditional ABCs. Letters on their sides are “lazy.” Upside-down ones are “crazy.” If the brand has tick marks that look like feet, it’s “walking,” and if it touches the one above it, it’s said to be “hanging.”

Called “Lazy A C” or “A C Connected”

First Recorded in Colorado 1952
If the characters touch, they are said to be “connected.” Sometimes they simply abut each other, but they can also share common elements, such as how this C’s backbone forms the A’s crossbar. The owners can include “connected” in the name or omit it.

Called “Diamond X Bar”

First Recorded in Colorado 1959
Colorado allows more than 30 pre-approved symbols in its brands. Simple ones include lines (known as bars), crosses, diamonds, brackets, and slashes, but shovels, spades, clovers, and other complex figures are also permitted.

Called “Bar B Q”

First Recorded in Colorado 1980
To register a brand, you must submit your design to the Brand Inspection Division, which will check it against all existing brands in Colorado for conflicts. A brand can also be rejected if it will be illegible on an animal. Puns, however, are perfectly acceptable.

This article was originally published in 5280 January 2023.
Nicholas Hunt
Nicholas Hunt
Nicholas writes and edits the Compass, Adventure, and Culture sections of 5280 and writes for