Why Are Cattle Branded?

Cowboys branding a calf in fenced area. South DakotaHumans have been using brands to identify livestock animals for thousands of years. In ancient times it was more of a ritualistic act. During the Middle Ages in Europe, hot branding was used to identify the owner of livestock. This has continued throughout history. In the American West branding is often associated with trail drives and cattle rustlers.

In more modern times, we have other styles of identification including ear tags, and tattoos, but branding is still used to identify ownership of animals. This is especially important in Western states, where grazing of public lands is vital to raising cattle. Out on the vast ranges cattle can easily wonder or get mixed with other herds. Believe it or not, there are still modern-day cattle rustlers to keep an eye out for. Being able to identify an animal’s owner by a brand is critically important.

In many situations, brands are used to identify specific animals by branding a number on their side or hip. A brand is frequently used in the purebred cattle business to identify an animal’s original  ownership after change in owners takes place. Most brands are placed either on the shoulder, side, or behind the hip. Excessive branding is discouraged because it decreases the leather value of the hide.

Branding was once mostly hot iron, heated in a fire pit or barrel. Hot brands tan the hide and leaves a scar where the brand was placed. This technique is still commonly used in large cattle herds like on this ranch near Colorado Springs. Other techniques in branding have also been introduced in more modern times. Electricity is commonly used to heat the branding iron or a freeze brand can also be used. This ranch in Wyoming also brands their cattle.

Freeze branding works by killing the pigment producing cells, resulting in white hair regrowth. Both of these can be easily read from a distance when done properly. The cow may budge and bawl for a moment, but no long-term harm or pain is done to the animal.

On the University of Tennessee farm we use freeze branding to assist with individual identification of each cow. Each cow has an ear tag with its number, but a brand behind the right hip allows for easier ID when the cow is across the pasture or loses her ear tag.

Tools for freeze branding cattle dry ice

The brands, each with a different number, are placed in a cooler of dry ice or liquid nitrogen to be chilled. We’re talking negative 100-200 degrees Celsius here. When the brands stop bubbling, things are close to being chilled.

Freeze Branding Cattle

Each cow is walked into the chute and squeezed just enough to place pressure on the sides and keep her from jumping around. As much for her safety as it is ours. The hair is trimmed short on her hip, rubbed with alcohol and the frozen branding iron is placed on the skin. We hold em there for at least 30 seconds – enough time to kill the pigment cells so the hair will grow back white.

Freeze Branding Iron for cattle

No harm done here for cow 551. They might jump around a bit, but I might too if someone stuck an ice-cube on my leg. I did filter this photo a bit more so we could see the marks from the brand. Just slight swelling from the cold.

Fresh freeze brand on cattle

The cow should be left with a nice clean mark so we can spot her from across the pasture. On this farm all cattle are branded as 18 month olds, or before having their first calf.

Branding cattle has strong roots in ranching’s heritage, but still serves a great purpose for modern-day ranchers. It may become even more important if we move farther into individual animal traceability.

What other questions do you have about branding cattle?

Do you have a post about branding on your place? Please share a link in the comments below!

Ryan Goodman works in grassroots advocacy with beef cattle farmers and ranchers across the United States. He is a proud alumnus of Oklahoma State University, with studies focusing on cattle reproduction and nutrition. Ryans
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