Branding livestock, especially cattle, has been a tradition for thousands of years. An ancient Egyptian tomb painting from 2700 B.C. is believed to be the earliest record of cattle branding. The main purpose of branding cattle is identification. Before the widespread use of fences in large cattle ranches, cattle from neighboring ranches often mingled, and it was important to know which cattle belonged to which ranchers.
Legal Branding Helps ID Cattle
Today fencing is more prevalent, but branding is still used to identify cattle and deter thieves. A rancher’s brand will be recognized on stolen cattle. Legal brands are registered with county or state authorities. Some states require re-registration of the brand at various intervals. Brands also can be used to identify which year a cow was born as well as its sire. Some states, such as Montana and Wyoming, require brand inspections for livestock leaving or entering the state.
There are two types of brands—the hot brand, which is quicker and easier to apply, and the freeze brand, which takes more skill and effort but has a neater finished look. A hot brand is a scar created with heat. The branding iron is heated in fire until red hot and then applied briefly to the animal’s hide in the desired location. The brand will be instantly visible, and the skin will heal with a hairless scar in the shape of the brand that will never go away. Although briefly painful, when done properly, a brand should not cause any complications for the animal.
A freeze brand requires chilling the iron below freezing temperature, either in liquid nitrogen or a combination of 99-percent rubbing alcohol and dry ice. Improved results are generally expected with an iron made of copper or stainless steel. The area to be branded must be clipped and cleaned with alcohol. The brand is applied and held for much longer than a hot brand, sometimes up to two minutes. This causes the same sensation as when a doctor uses liquid nitrogen to freeze a wart on a person. The brand initially will be visible as a depressed area and then will swell and disappear within a few minutes. If done properly, the area will scab and then grow back white hair in three to four months. The cold damages the hair follicles causing the change of color. If a freeze brand is held on too long, it will appear like a hot brand with no hair regrowth.
Freeze brands are generally considered more attractive since the bright white hair contrasts appealingly against a red or black hide. However, the increased amount of time and effort make it a less practical option for commercial cattle. Show cattle or valuable registered cattle are more likely to have freeze brands. Freeze brands are not effective on white or light-colored cattle since the white hair will not stand out.
Branding is an important form of identification that is difficult to tamper with. Ear tags can be removed, but a brand requires significant effort to alter, and a recently altered brand will be obvious in a sale yard or livestock check point. Most ranchers today continue to use brands as an important identification tool in their cattle operations.
Kathleen Morriss, DVM, is a graduate of Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine and lives in Junction, Texas, on her family’s ranch and does relief work at small and mixed animal practices in the Austin and San Antonio areas.