With the National Animal
Identification System (NAHMS) in the spotlight, there is significant emphasis
on individual identification of beef cattle. Individual animal identification
is an integral part of good herd record keeping and management.
Selection decisions, pairing up cows and calves, treating injured or ill cattle
and estrus detection are just a few of the many routine management practices
where individual animal identification is important.
The 1997 National Animal Health Monitoring System Beef '97 study found that approximately
half (51.9 percent) of the beef cattle operations surveyed across the United
States used no individual calf identification. Operations with over 50 head
were more likely to use some form of individual calf identification (78.1 percent
of the larger herds compared to only 40.8 percent of smaller operations with
less than 50 head used individual calf identification).
Plastic ear tags were cited as the most common form of individual animal identification
regardless of herd size. In the Southeast, 30.2 percent of beef cows were individually
identified using plastic ear tags, 16.0 percent with hot iron brands, 11.6
percent with ear notches, 5.9 percent with ear tattoos, 2.3 percent with metal
ear tags, and only 1.2 percent with freeze brands.
One of the oldest forms of individual animal identification is branding. Brands
are a form of permanent identification of livestock that serve as a theft deterrent.
Brands can serve as both a method of herd identification (where each animal
has the same herd identifier) as well as a method of individual animal identification
(where each animal has a unique identifier).
In the NAHMS Beef '97 survey, plastic ear tags and hot iron branding were found
to be the most common forms of herd identification in the United States. At
the Leveck Animal Research Center (South Farm) on the Mississippi State University
(MSU) campus, both herd and individual identifiers are branded onto all beef
herd replacements and bulls. All cattle at the South Farm are tattooed in both
ears, tagged with a plastic ear tag, and tagged with an electronic ear tag
at birth with unique identifiers.
Branding on the South Farm routinely takes place at yearling age. Three inch
branding irons are used. Charolais cattle are branded with hot iron brands,
while Angus and Hereford cattle are branded with freeze brands. The commercial
herds are branded similarly dependent upon hair coat color.
Freeze Branding Methods
Freeze branding can be a relatively painless and very effective form of permanent
animal and herd identification. Research results out of Texas and Canada have
shown that freeze branding results in less discomfort to cattle than hot iron
While hot iron branding is used to make a neat, legible scar on the surface of
the hide, the goal with freeze branding is to convert hair pigmentation to
white in a legible manner. Freeze branding destroys the natural pigments in
hair, producing white hair growth. Freeze brands typically become legible about
six to eight weeks after branding. Right as a new hair coat is starting (fall
or spring) is a good time to freeze brand. Freeze branding can be successful
during any time of the year, but brands applied after a new hair coat is already
on an animal may take up to four months to appear as white hair.
There are basically two effective methods for cooling freeze branding irons.
Liquid nitrogen can be used or a combination of denatured alcohol and dry ice
can be used.
Both methods have been used at the South Farm, but the current method of choice
is the alcohol and dry ice method because of the reduced risk of scarring.
The downside to the alcohol and dry ice method is that the iron must be placed
on the hide for a longer period of time than with the liquid nitrogen method.
Liquid nitrogen ( 344° F) cools freeze branding irons to a colder temperature
than alcohol and dry ice ( 112° F).
When liquid nitrogen is used to cool branding irons, the irons should be pressed
against the hide for approximately 20 to 45 seconds depending upon the age
of the animal and outside temperature. Hot summer temperatures and thicker
hides in cattle of Brahman breeding may necessitate longer branding durations.
When denatured alcohol and dry ice are used to cool branding irons, the irons
should be pressed against the hide for approximately 45 to 50 seconds. White
cattle can be freeze branded to achieve a bald or bare brand by holding the
branding irons in place against the hide for a total of approximately 60 seconds.
The extra time needed for freeze branding may reduce the number of head that
can be branded over a given period of time, but the end results can be very
Supplies needed for freeze branding with dry ice and alcohol include: a cattle
working facility with an area to restrain individual animals (squeeze chute),
freeze branding irons, a plastic or Styrofoam (not metal) ice chest. dry ice,
denatured alcohol, clippers and a source of electricity to run them, a spray
bottle, a rag or brush to clean the clipped area, and a timer or clock with
a second hand.
Irons suitable for freeze branding are often made of copper alloy. Brass, stainless
steel, and aluminum irons may also be used, but the copper irons tend to be
They may look a little different than hot branding irons in that, with freeze
branding irons, there is not a need for breaks in the metal brand at key joints
to release excess heat. Some of the stainless steel irons are designed to be
used for both freeze and hot iron branding and will have breaks. There are
many different sizes of irons available.
Decide on what size is needed to he legible at a distance and is appropriate
for the particular brand location and age of animal. At the South Farm, yearlings
are branded immediately below the hip with three-inch irons. Four inch irons
were used in the past, but the recent move to smaller irons was an attempt
to improve the appearance of the brands and reduce the extent of hide damage.
Some other Mississippi beef cattle operations brand on the shoulder with irons
as small as 1 1/2 inches in height, for example.
With the alcohol and dry ice method of freeze branding, use a mixture that allows
the irons to be submerged but is not watery. A 50:50 mixture often works well.
Approximately one gallon of alcohol and 20 lbs. of dry ice will brand about 20
head of cattle in most situations. If planning to work a full day, then 50
to 75 lbs. of dry ice will be needed. Using denatured isopropyl, methyl or
ethyl alcohol with a high purity level is critical to prevent freezing and
slush buildup. A minimum of 95 percent purity is needed. Ninety nine percent
pure denatured alcohol works best. When the humidity is high, the solution
will become diluted with moisture taken up by the alcohol from the atmosphere
over time. Draining the used alcohol and replacing it with fresh alcohol after
several hours of use may be advisable on humid days.
Place irons in an ice chest with enough dry ice and alcohol to completely submerge
the branding surface of the irons and at least part way up the handle above
the branding surface. About two inches of crushed dry ice covering the bottom
of the cooler is needed. The alcohol/dry ice mixture will slowly evaporate,
so additional alcohol and dry ice will need to be added throughout the cattle
working session to keep the iron surfaces submerged.
Irons are ready to use when the refrigerant mixture stops boiling and frost builds
up around the base of the irons. Waiting 15 to 20 minutes from the time that
the irons are first placed in the cooler until first use is a good rule of
thumb. The more irons to be cooled, the longer this generally takes. When irons
are reused, make sure that they are cooled for at least one to two minutes
Before applying branding irons to the hide surface, make sure that the animal
is properly restrained (preferably in a squeeze chute) and that the branding
area is clipped, cleaned and sprayed with a layer of denatured alcohol.
Clipping serves two purposes. It prepares the hide to receive the brand by removing
the layers of hair that serve as insulation, and it provides a visual guide
for brand placement. The shorter the hair is clipped, the shorter the duration
of branding iron application needed to create a good brand. Clipping in a block
pattern with level and square edges makes brand proper placement much easier
and can result in a more attractive brand. A cloth rag or brush should be used
to remove clipped hair, manure and other debris that may interfere with iron
The layer of denatured alcohol sprayed onto the hide helps transfer the cold
temperature of the iron to the hide. A very generous amount of denatured alcohol
should be applied to saturate the hide.
Always check your iron and animal information before branding to make sure the
correct iron is about to be applied. Begin timing the branding process on an
animal when the iron first contacts the hide. Use significant pressure to make
sure that there is good contact for the entire surface of the iron.
The animal may jump within the first 10 seconds of brand contact. The extreme
cold usually freezes the nerve endings after 10 seconds, and the animal will
stop moving in most cases. As an animal moves around, maintain contact in the
same location. Put a good bit of force behind the iron by leaning into the
iron to get good contact and prevent it from sliding around.
If the iron loses contact with the branding location on the hide, then reapply
the iron to the same location. An outline of the brand number, letter or symbol
should be readily visible to show where to reapply the iron. Keep up with the
amount of time the iron contacts the hide to get the full 45 to 50 second application
needed for a good brand.
Beef Quality Assurance should be considered when branding cattle. Hides are an
important by product of beef production, and too much hide damage due to brands
was cited as one of the top ten quality challenges facing the beef industry
in the 2000 National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA).
The 2000 NBQA revealed that 49.3 percent of the fed cattle assessed were not
branded. Brand size and location impact the ultimate value of the hide. Of
the cattle evaluated as part of the 2000 NBQA, 4.4 percent had multiple brands,
3.6 percent had shoulder brands, 13.7 percent had side brands and 36.3 percent
had butt brands.
Side brand sizes ranged from 1 to 900 square inches (yes, that number is 900
and not a typo). One of the industry goals set forth in the 2000 NBQA was to
completely eliminate side branded hides.
Cattle should be in good flesh when branding. Thin cattle can be more difficult
to brand effectively, and the end result may not be satisfactory. Both excessive
hide damage and poor placement of brands can be avoided by practicing responsible
branding. Freeze branding can be a good alternative to hot iron branding in
many situations for reducing hide damage.
Jane Parish is an Extension Beef Cattle Specialist with Mississippi State University.