Freeze branding: a veterinarian’s view

Years ago, I wrote an article on the negatives of hot-iron branding and got more letters to the editor than I have since.

Please read this one and see if this makes sense to the cattle industry.

More and more, especially in purebred herds, you see cows and bulls with freeze brands. These may be just the herd letters or could be the actual identification or tattoo of the cattle.

One reason freeze branding has become necessary in purebreds is because of black cattle. Tattoos are hard to read in black, older cattle. With the cattle industry having only black and dark green ink available, producers need another form of permanent identification in case tags fall out.

The industry has never come up with a yellow, red or white tattoo ink that works on darker cattle, however DNA hair testing is available if needed.

Freeze branding is a very visible and permanent form of identification. It involves a process generally done by experienced people and they treat it like a business. With dry ice and things like methanol to prevent cold irons sticking to the skin, the end result is a very visible brand.

When the skin is frozen, the hair grows in white. The thing I was most impressed with when watching this procedure was the lower level of pain.

There is very little struggling in animals while it’s being administered. There are no vocalizations and very little in the way of skin peeling or wounding.

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There are no big open wounds like one may get with hot-iron branding so the issue of flies bothering the wound are minimized.

The hair is always clipped to improve contact between the iron and skin. Irons are put on animals for an exact time period. If contact is broken between the iron and the skin, that extra time lost is added on.

We need a researcher studying pain and animal welfare to look at freeze branding versus hot iron branding.

With hot-iron branding, producers use NSAIDs on the bull calves that are also castrated at branding but most have also realized the benefits to heifers of painkillers that are hot iron branded.

In my observations of both methods of branding, if I were to call hot-iron branding an eight of 10 on a pain scale, I would have to say freeze branding looks like a two.

Pain researchers would be able to quantify this more accurately, but visually it appears to be far less painful.

Researchers have maybe avoided the branding situation because it is a difficult one. It is not mentioned in the beef code of practice and the bison code states no branding for herd identification is allowed. I have also not seen it in the verified beef production manual.

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Professionals experienced at freeze branding are calm when handling cattle so the animals walk quietly out of the chute. The calmer the handlers get the cattle into the chute, the easier they are to brand.

Commercial producers should seriously consider freeze branding, which would be done on essentially yearling heifers before breeding when all the heifer replacements have been selected.

Some producers may be able to eliminate branding of steers and non-replacement heifers. It is kind of a shame and lots of work to brand cattle going to slaughter in the next year.

As well, it would be nice if financial institutions or feeder associations did not require branding because hair samples can be tested for DNA to solve rare disputes.

Hot-iron branding decreases hide quality and it’s likely freeze branding does as well. Producers should try to brand on the hip. Also, the smallest irons possible are recommended, especially with hot iron branding.

We need more research into the pain differences between the two branding procedures.

Producers thinking of switching to freeze branding, should ask a participating purebred breeder to find out where they get it done, the time involved and the end results.

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Roy Lewis works as a technical services veterinarian part time with Merck Animal Health in Alberta.