ASHLEY, N.D. — Delbert Eszlinger, 75, has been a part-time local cattle brand inspector for 55 years.

Every year, just before Christmas, the Ashley, N.D., rancher gets a little card in the mail, renewing his appointment.

“To be honest with you, I never thought I would last this long in this field,” Eszlinger said.

Eszlinger inspects movements involving a total of about 2,000 head of cattle that go to 12 to 14 locations along the border in McIntosh County, sometimes assisting in Dickey County. The inspections are designed so if a cattle operator from South Dakota or Minnesota rents a pasture for the grazing season, they only take their own cattle home.

He spends about 35 days a year doing the work. It’s yearlong, but there is more work in October, November and early December.

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It’s an as-needed business.

“You never know when you’re going to get a call,” Eszlinger said. “They’re supposed to give a guy two days notice in advance. Some of them give two or three hours notice. Most of the guys call the night before.”

I was a cowboy

“I was kind of a cowboy,” says Delbert Eszlinger of Ashley, N.D., describing the start of his career in sale barns and then county brand inspection for the state of North Dakota, starting in 1965. Photo taken Dec. 30, 2020, near Ashley, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
“I was kind of a cowboy,” says Delbert Eszlinger of Ashley, N.D., describing the start of his career in sale barns and then county brand inspection for the state of North Dakota, starting in 1965. Photo taken Dec. 30, 2020, near Ashley, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Eszlinger grew up in the ranch house he lives in today. He grew up riding horses. At age 13, he helped an uncle round up cattle. In 1963, he graduated from high school.

“I was kind of a cowboy at the time,” he recalled.

Shortly after he graduated high school at age 17, the Ashley sale barn manager hired him to round up cattle at ranches to be trucked for the Wednesday sales. He worked as a “yard man.” At age 19, in 1965, Millard Lund, the state’s chief brand inspector, came to offer him a job filling the county brand inspection post.

“I probably shouldn’t have been doing that (referring to his young age) but I accepted it, and here we are today, 55 years later,” Eszlinger said. “I’m still at it.”

Delbert Eszlinger, 75, in 1965, he became a part-time county brand inspector for the state of North Dakota, in addition to beef and horse ranching. Photo taken Dec. 30, 2020, near Ashley, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Delbert Eszlinger, 75, in 1965, he became a part-time county brand inspector for the state of North Dakota, in addition to beef and horse ranching. Photo taken Dec. 30, 2020, near Ashley, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
In 1967, he married Donna Hoffman from the Ashley-Forbes area. The couple ranched and had a son, Rodney, and two daughters, Darcy and Garland.

He went on to work 33 years in the Ashley sale barn until it closed in 1966 and then 20 years in Wishek. He quit the sale barn work in 1997 and did “spot hitting” work at an Edgeley, N.D., sale barn until it closed.

“When you’re a brand inspector at a sale barn, you’re the first one there and the last one to leave. You’ve got to be there early in the morning to check through the cattle pens, and have to write brand releases after the sale. When you have big sales it’s not uncommon to come home 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. in the morning.”

But there still are inspections to do.

More to do

Delbert Eszlinger, 75, no longer works long hours inspecting brands at sale barns, but spends most of his work in “brand-clearing”  cattle that have been grazed in McIntosh County, N.D., and are ready to head to their home states. Photo taken Dec. 30, 2020, near Ashley, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Delbert Eszlinger, 75, no longer works long hours inspecting brands at sale barns, but spends most of his work in “brand-clearing” cattle that have been grazed in McIntosh County, N.D., and are ready to head to their home states. Photo taken Dec. 30, 2020, near Ashley, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Cattle producers often come from South Dakota or Minnesota to graze cattle in North Dakota.

When the cattle leave, they must be “brand-cleared,” or inspected.

“Some inspector has to go look at these cattle, make sure there’s no neighbor cattle in there, that they’re trying to take along, which happens,” he said.

Ranchers pay $1.50 per head for inspection and pay a penalty if they don’t. Some try to argue that they don’t know they need to be licensed. If they’re caught without being inspected, they pay both the fee and a penalty.

“We call them border jumpers,” Eszlinger said. Usually, a neighbor will report them.

He estimates that about half of the cattle are branded. Producers usually brand their cows and often the calves go unbranded. Verifying that unbranded cattle are owned often involves visiting with neighbors to make sure none of theirs are missing.

Brand inspectors find cattle brands in a publication put out by the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association. Photo taken Dec. 30, 2020, near Ashley, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Brand inspectors find cattle brands in a publication put out by the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association. Photo taken Dec. 30, 2020, near Ashley, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Eszlinger acknowledged he probably wouldn’t be inspecting brands today if younger men had taken over those duties. A former trustee for the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, he’s plenty busy on the ranch where son, Rodney, and grandson, Reed, are taking over. The three together run about 800 beef cows and have a registered Quarterhorse business — 20 mares and horse breaking. They sell calves in late October, usually through the Herreid Livestock Market in South Dakota.

As for brand inspecting, Delbert would like to go another five years, until he’s 80. He doesn’t know if that would be a record and neither does the Stockmen's Association. Executive Director Julie Schaff Ellingson said the organization hasn’t kept records on Eszlinger’s overall rank.

“Delbert is the third-longest serving local inspectors amongst our current local inspection team,” she said. Only Duaine Voight of Shields, N.D., and Dorvan Solberg of Ray, N.D., have been doing it longer.

What's important to Eszlinger is that he makes it a nice, even 60 years.

“That’s the plan,” he said, “if I stay in good health.”