PIERRE - Using a hot brand to permanently mark cattle and horses remains the legal proof of ownership in western South Dakota. But one piece of that Old West tradition is changing in the digital age.
State Brand Board inspectors who work the St. Onge livestock market now enter their tally information from sale days into a central database, using laptop and desktop computers, rather than paper reports.
The project began about two years ago under the Brand Board's then-director, Larry Stearns.
On May 22, the board voted to expand the digital tally system to the Belle Fourche sale barn. The board authorized a new contract with the same vendor, ERC Computing Services of Cheyenne, Wyo., who did the St. Onge work.
The approach is purposely careful and slow. The conversion requires that inspectors, who generally are ranchers or come from ranching backgrounds, be willing to use computers.
I want Belle Fourche and St. Onge to be spot-on before we move into another, said Wanda Blair of Vale, who chairs the board.
The primary reason for brand inspections is to deter theft of livestock, especially in the sparsely settled range country west of the Missouri River. Cattle, horses and mules can't be sold, slaughtered or taken out of the West River area without a brand inspection.
State inspectors sort through many situations. Sometimes cattle get mixed together. Sometimes they get stolen. Sometimes they show up at sale barns or in cattle trailers or in ranch corrals without any identifiable brands.
The goal is that the rightful owner always be found. Livestock without the correct brands or no brands are held until matters can be resolved or no one makes a claim.
I look forward to the rapid ability to get (record) searches done. It will strengthen the program, board member Curt Mortenson of Fort Pierre said.
Before he retired this spring, former director Stearns led the conversion of the brand-inspection system to a state program.
It had been operated on contract for many decades by the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association until a bad split developed during Gov. Mike Rounds' administration.
One of the changes made by Stearns as part of the switch-over was getting the records into a digital database.
Stearns initiated creation of a digital filing system for the paper reports, using the same computer consulting service that handled the St. Onge conversion.
Brand Board staff scanned into the system images of more than 210,000 paper tallies, from 2005 forward.
The work required hiring a part-time office assistant in 2010 and the staff spent several years catching up.
The Brand Board's operations also were added to state government's computer network.
Another addition was an Internet site in 2010 for the brand registration book, which shows each unique brand and its owner.
The new contract with ERC, which is run by Ed Rybicki of Cheyenne, calls for paying $6,500 to bring Belle Fourche aboard and paying $1,500 apiece annually for maintenance at each of the two sale barns.
The price for bringing any more sale barns on in 2014 would be $7,500 apiece, new director Debbie Trapp said.
The Brand Board has paid ECS about $60,000 since 2008, according to state records.
Board member Scott Vance of Faith, who operates the sale barn there, said the inspectors who work at each market will have something to say about whether they would be comfortable in making the switch to submitting tallies by computer.
It will be the future of the program, he said.