Branding 101

Spring is my favorite time of the year.  After the thrills of victory and agonies of defeat during calving season, spring works begin.  The cows and calves are gathered and given their spring vaccinations, dewormed and poured for external parasites.  When the calves are gathered, they are also given a hot brand.  Our brand is a permanent mark of ownership on that calf.  If the calf is sold, the new owner can put their brand on the animal, but our brand will always be visible on the left hip.

Branding irons heating up in the fire

Livestock branding is a technique for marking livestock so as to identify the owner. Originally, livestock branding only referred to a hot brand for large stock, though the term is now also used to refer to other alternative techniques such as freeze branding. Other forms of livestock identification include inner lip or ear tattoos, earmarking, ear tagging, and RFID tagging with a type of microchip.

This is a brand that was just applied to a calf. It is left on for a few seconds, only long enough to burn the hair off the animal. Cattle have very think hides that allow us brand them.

Branding is very important in proving ownership of lost or stolen animals. An unbranded animal is almost impossible to legally identify. No other way is as easily visible as branding, not only for identification, but as a deterrent to theft.  Other methods such as microchips are positive identification, if a new owner is aware of them, but hot or freeze brands are highly visible and hard to alter.

Even young cowboys and cowgirls love to help out at branding time!!

Brands, both hot iron and freeze brands, are recorded by state livestock agencies in many states.  In some states, including Nebraska, freeze brands are not valid on cattle.  The agencies also record the location you place the brand on the animal.  You may not register a particular brand if the same symbols and location have already been registered by someone else in your area.  It is important, not only to register a brand correctly, but to keep it active.  Like our vehicle registrations, brand registrations do expire.  A number of states do not have brand inspection systems.  For instance, Texan’s register brands in their county clerk’s office and do not have a state-wide agency overseeing the 254 counties.

My Rummy pony and I dragging a calf to the fire at a branding.

Some ranches still heat branding irons in a wood or coal fire; others use an electric branding iron or electric sources to heat a traditional iron.  Regardless of heating method, the iron is only applied for the amount of time needed to remove all hair and create a permanent mark, usually a few seconds.  Branding irons are applied for a longer time to cattle than to horses, due to the differing thicknesses of their skins.

Working a calf at a branding. I am giving the vaccinations.

There are several differnt ways to brand cattle.  Driving them through a squeeze chute, or calf cradle if they are calves is one of the most popular ways.  When we brand our calves, we prefer to preserve the way of the west, or western heritage, and “drag them to the fire.”  We gather them, sort the cows out of the corral, then rope their hind legs and drag them horseback to the fire.  No method is better than the other, we just prefer to rope them.

To read a livestock brand:

1. Read from the left to the right as ML (M L).
2. Read from the top to the bottom as                         (bar m).
3. When the brand is enclosed, it is read from the outside to the inside as (circle S).

A neighbors branding

Another method of livestock identification is freeze branding.  When super-cold or chilled branding irons are applied to the hide of the animal, the pigment-producing cells are destroyed or altered.  When the hair grows back, it is white.  The method is not foolproof, as the results are variable depending on the weather, age of animal and the methods used.  The major advantage claimed for freeze branding is the brand is more legible throughout most of the year than a hot-iron brand.  Freeze branding also causes less damage to the hide than a hot brand.

Clipping the area to be freeze branded. Clipping the hair close to the skin ensures the coolant will reach the animals skin.

Blowing the area clean.

Replacement heifers (females that are retained in our herd) are given a freeze brand in the spring of their yearling year.  The yearling bulls that we sell are also freeze branded.  Freeze branding requires more time than hot branding.

This is the container with the freeze branding irons. They are in dry ice and 99% alcohol to chill the irons to the appropriate temperature.

After blowing, we brush the area to be branded and apply more alcohol to be certain the area is clean and ready for the irons.

We freeze brand because it is much easier to read their numbers when we are sorting the cows.  Also if cows loose their ear tags during the course of the year, we can still identify which ones they are.

Applying the irons to the cow for 60 seconds

This is the area after the irons are lifted. You can see that the irons caused an outline around where they were applied. Usually this means the freeze brands will turn out.

This picture is about 30 days post freeze branding. The dark hair falls off and is ready to start growing new white hair in.

A finished freeze brand on a cow

Freeze brands on a bull

Now you know a little something about branding cattle.  Have a great weekend!

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About Husker Cowgirl

I am a ranchers wife, beef feed consultant for Aurora Cooperative and an avid Husker fan. I am passionate about agriculture and especially beef cattle. My husband and I do things on our ranch the old fashioned way - using horses. I also enjoy taking my horses to town and competing with them at local and state events on the weekends.
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