If branding is deemed necessary, it must be done right

Irons should be made from flat bar, at least 3/8 inch thick and about 1 1/2 inches wide, and then slightly bevelled on the face to no less than 1/4 inch wide. This will allow the iron to carry some heat from the fire to the hide without too much cooling. | Photo courtesy Suzanne Rose

Branding remains necessary in many modern cattle operations because it is still the only permanent form of cattle identification. We must make the effort to do it well.

In this column, we will look at hot iron branding.

A good brand should be legible from quite a distance.

In Alberta, Livestock Identification Services carries out brand inspections and helps find lost or stolen stock. It also has valuable information on the agency website on how to brand properly.

I also got a lot of good information from Darrell Hlus, a cow-calf producer and former brand inspector who worked out of the Edmonton Stockyards when it was still in existence. He is a supervisor with one of the feeder associations in Alberta and is passionate yet practical about this subject.

As well, I gained many good points on brand construction from Mike Rose, a rancher formerly from British Columbia, who has built many branding irons for fellow producers.

If we learn from the information out there, we can do a better job while defending the work we do, and we can better look after the welfare of the cattle.

First off, most calves are branded at two to four months of age. If producers have a late calf that is still very young at branding time, it is better to let it grow a bit before branding it.

There is good information on the LIS website about constructing brands and watching out for overheated areas, such as on an “8” or “M” or “N,” because when you get the areas where the metal is close together, you will need to notch them so heat won’t be concentrated, causing a blotch.

Irons should be made from flat bar, at least 3/8 inch thick and about 1 1/2 inches wide, and then slightly bevelled on the face to no less than ¼ inch wide. This will allow the iron to carry some heat from the fire to the hide without too much cooling.

Making a series of 90-degree cuts spaced three-quarters to one inch apart along the characters will reduce slippage and result in a much clearer brand.

Making a good iron-brush from a couple of wire brushes attached to a piece of scrap plywood and placed on the ground beside the fire will ensure that your irons are kept free of build-up.

Of the three locations (hip, shoulder, rib), rib brands are the most visible and the shoulder brand the toughest.

If a novice is doing the branding, clip the area first because it reduces sliding.

Many feeder association brands have three characters. If the characters are lined up above one another, it is best to roll it down and work on getting an even burn by applying the iron for three to five seconds. This will give you the nice buckskin colour to the skin.

It is usually recommended that irons be the colour of grey ashes when applied.

Proper restraint of cattle is also important. A good squeeze chute for older stock and a good calf cradle is effective. Holding young calves on the ground is also effective because you want to prevent moving and running of the brand. The procedure also goes quicker, resulting in a more legible brand.

Squared-off ends to the metal have a tendency to stay. The electric branding irons’ hot surfaces are rounded, so one must watch sliding and roll the irons. Also for electric irons, use a good power cord and you may need two electric irons if you are processing fast.

Years ago, I heard of steers electrocuted in an old barn so make sure the barn is grounded well.

There are several situations when branding is necessary. Those can include instances of financed cattle, in community pastures where multiple owners run cattle together, or when exporting cattle, for example. Some provinces require brands on animals going to crown range.

Avoid branding wet or sweated up cattle. It may pay to postpone the branding in these instances, or clipping first may help. Attempting to brand a wet hide will result in scalding and leave illegible or poor brands.

If brands are overheated or pressed too deep, they can become infected, causing unnecessary pain to the animal and a disfigured brand.

The beef code of practice recognizes that branding causes short-term pain and there are no good practical methods to eliminate this.

Most producers recognize this and carry out some long-term pain control in the form of NSAIDs, which last a few days. There are also pain control forms that are easy to give, such as orals, pour-ons or injectables. Young calves need very little of these to be effective.

Branding will continue to be used in the appropriate circumstances by those trained to do so and using pain killers where appropriate with proper restraint.

Some producers spray on things like aloe vera or new oil to the burn to facilitate healing.

Check out the LIS website for more information. As well, brand inspectors can answer specific questions. They are all passionate about teaching proper branding techniques because it will make their jobs easier over time.

Roy Lewis works as a veterinarian in Alberta.

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