Branding of cattle goes from hot to cold

Hot-iron branding is the oldest form of livestock identification and proof of ownership. But freeze branding, a technique developed at Washington State University in 1966, offers a more humane alternative.

It was first used for in-herd identification, mainly by seedstock breeders, to give animals permanent individual numbers.

Key Points

Liquid nitrogen or a mix of alcohol, dry ice required for freeze branding.

Cold temperature kills pigment-producing cells in hair follicles; new hair is white.

After about 10 seconds, nerve endings freeze and animal no longer feels pain.

James England, University of Idaho Caine Center, says freeze brands are now legal proof of ownership in most Western states, but they don’t show up immediately, like a hot-iron brand. “The length of time it takes for white hair to fully grow will depend on the time of year the animal was branded,” he says.

“It takes awhile for hair to grow in white — usually the full hair growth season. A newborn calf will show the brand fairly soon, usually by the time he sheds his baby hair. If you brand a 2- or 3-month-old calf, however, you usually don’t see the brand very well until the next winter. On average, it takes about four months to really see the brand,” says England.

This is the main disadvantage to freeze-branding as proof of ownership. “Calves should be branded well ahead of when you’d turn cattle out on the range, for instance,” says England.

“When branding baby calves, choose a very small iron, because the brand grows with the animal,” he explains.

How to create a good freeze brand

England says the two key factors for a successful freeze brand are clipping the area to be branded and pre-wetting the skin with 70% alcohol. The area should first be brushed clean, clipped as close to the skin as possible, then brushed again to make sure there’s no loose hair or skin scurf to interfere with the iron getting right next to the hide. Then apply alcohol to completely wet the shaved area and immediately place the branding iron on the wet skin.

“Alcohol on the skin helps conduct the cold better,” says England. He prefers liquid nitrogen to cool the irons, rather than using alcohol and dry ice, because he feels it gets the irons colder and makes a better brand. The iron also doesn’t have to be left on the skin as long.

“Use a Styrofoam container just big enough for your iron, and put just enough liquid nitrogen in to cover the iron. When you place the iron in the fluid it will bubble. Once the fluid stops bubbling, this is your clue that the iron is cold enough,” he says.

The animal should be adequately restrained so it can’t move. “When branding a baby calf, you only need to leave the branding iron on the skin for 20 to 30 seconds. The skin is very thin. If the calf is more than about a week old, leave the iron on for about 30 to 40 seconds,” says England. Use a timer or a watch with a second hand to make sure you apply the irons long enough, but no longer than necessary.

“The animal feels pain for a few seconds, but it’s not as painful as a hot iron. After about 10 seconds, the nerve endings are frozen, and there’s no more pain,” he says.

“Wear gloves. You can ‘burn’ yourself with extreme cold. Be careful to never spill liquid nitrogen on your skin,” says England.

Smith Thomas writes from Salmon, Idaho.


What’s your number? Freeze branding is a legal proof of ownership in most Western states. Photo: Ruby and Clyde Nelson

This article published in the June, 2011 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.