The stench and smoke emanating from burning hair and flesh have raised animal welfare concerns that branding causes unnecessary pain and suffering.
“It is to the public perception and that is what we have to address alternatives,” said Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein during the International Livestock Identification Association convention in Calgary.
“We owe it to them and the industry to do what we can to find alternatives.”
Schwartzkopf-Genswein is an Alberta Agriculture feedlot specialist who did her doctoral research on branding practices, pain and associated animal behaviour. After measuring responses from nearly 1,000 animals, she concluded that hot iron and freeze branding are painful procedures.
Branding has been banned in Europe and the sentiments behind the ban could move to North America.
Schwartzkopf-Genswein believes branding creates minimal stress compared to the overall amount of anxiety and pain endured by animals during castration, dehorning and vaccination.
“If we are truly interested in reducing stress in cattle, we have to look at handling procedures,” she said.
So far, no appropriate replacement for brands have been found to identify livestock.
There is too much inconsistency among various types of electronic identification.
De-pigmentation removes colour from hair follicles by injecting a compound into the dermis, but it is only a short-term solution.
“The chemical only did its job for a short period of time and the cells started to produce colour again,” she said.
That leaves branding as the most permanent form of identification. In some jurisdictions it is the only legally recognized form of identity for livestock.
Her branding study used physiological tests to measure pain and stress, as well as a decline in productivity and general health over a 10-day period.
Freeze branding was developed by an American veterinarian in the1960s as a painless alternative to hot iron branding.
Schwartzkopf-Genswein found no difference in average daily gains among the steers and no more sick animals after branding.
Cortisol levels were measured in the blood to quantify pain and stress. It is a stress-related hormone released into the bloodstream. She found the same levels following freeze and hot branding. However, elevated levels of cortisol were found for longer stretches in hot-branded animals.
She also measured stress-induced analgesia, which is the body’s way of protecting itself against pain. When an animal is in pain it produces endorphins, a natural painkiller.
A secondary painful stimuli was introduced to measure reaction by applying a laser to the back of the foot of a newly branded animal. The longer the animal takes to respond, the more endorphins are circulating to control the major source of pain.
Pressure tests were done by touching the branded area to measure animal response.
She found no difference in response from either hot or freeze branding, which indicates both are painful procedures.
Inflammation is also painful and was present after branding. She found more inflammation to be present 12 hours after freeze branding.
This could be similar to the pain associated with severe frostbite.
Schwartzkopf-Genswein argues freeze branding should not be sold as a painless procedure because the aftermath is often worse than pain suffered from the iron.
A computer program also measured head movement, which was greater in hot iron branding. Cattle also kicked and vocalized more with hot branding.
A control group of animals was put through the handling chutes in the same way as those to be branded. They were not branded and their stress responses were also measured.