by: Heather Smith Thomas

Hot iron branding of livestock is the oldest form of permanent identification, practiced on other continents for hundreds of years, and was adopted very early in the American West as proof of ownership. Freeze branding is a relatively new innovation, developed at Washington State University in 1966 by Dr. Keith Farrell. This method utilizes extremely cold branding irons, chilled by fluids such as liquid nitrogen or a mixture of alcohol and dry ice. Cold temperature kills the pigment-producing cells in the hair follicles and white hairs replace the natural hair color in the branded area.

This is a less painful method of branding. Freezing also produces less damage to the hide than a hot iron. Another advantage is that it can be legible through more of the year than a hot iron brand (as when cattle have a long winter hair coat). For white cattle, the hair can be completely removed by leaving the iron on the skin longer, killing the hair producing cells. Most western states still require a hot brand as legal proof of ownership, but many stockmen use freeze branding for individual identification because it is often more permanent than ear tags, neck chains or other ID techniques.

Freeze brands become easy to read about four to eight weeks after the brand is applied. Freeze branding can be done any time of year, but the best time to brand is when a new hair coat is starting to grow, such as in spring or fall. If the new summer hair or winter hair is already grown in, it may take up to 4 months for the white hairs of the brand to appear.

Coolants – Liquid nitrogen is the coldest fluid for chilling the irons, facilitating a quicker application since the iron doesn't have to be left on the skin as long. Liquid nitrogen is available through artificial insemination companies and welding supply outlets. Care should be taken to never spill liquid nitrogen on your skin, since it is extremely cold (minus 344 degrees F.). It will quickly cool a branding iron to 250 degrees below zero.

Another effective coolant is alcohol (methyl, ethyl or isopropyl alcohol) mixed with dry ice. When used properly, this method can bring the branding iron temperature down to about 112 degrees below zero. It is important that the alcohol be pure (at least 99 percent strength) or it will change to slush at the low temperature needed. The solution should be about 160 to 180 degrees below zero when the irons are put into it. A gallon of alcohol and 20 pounds of dry ice will usually brand about 20 cattle. If a lot more cattle will be branded, you may need 50 to 75 pounds of dry ice. Many people use alcohol rather than liquid nitrogen just because of the expense; the cost is usually more than double when using liquid nitrogen.

Acetone can be used instead of alcohol. It has some advantages in that this liquid stays clear and you can always see how much dry ice is in the container. Alcohol tends to lose strength because it tends to absorb moisture from the air—especially on a humid day--and a new solution must be prepared periodically if you are branding many cattle.

Some people use dry ice in gasoline because it doesn't take on moisture from the air (like alcohol does) and will retain a very cold temperature for up to half a day. It can be dangerous, however, because of its potential for explosion. A person using gasoline needs to be extremely careful when it is being cooled down at the beginning of the branding session and again as it is warming up afterward. During these times it can vaporize and mix with air to form a highly explosive mixture. Gasoline vapor is three times heavier than air and collects in low areas to create hazardous conditions.

Always be careful when handling any coolant solution. Liquid nitrogen, dry ice and cold alcohol or acetone should never be allowed to come into contact with human skin. Vapor from the liquid can be damaging to tissues of eyes and nose. Alcohol and acetone are both very flammable and should be used out in the open air or in a very well-ventilated building. Do not use electric cattle prods near the coolant, and avoid smoking.

Branding Irons – Irons for freeze branding can be made of brass, stainless steel, or aluminum, but copper alloys tend to be the most effective. Unlike hot irons, the number or symbol can be a continuous surface; there is no need for spaces at joints or corners to dissipate excess heat to avoid blotching. There are many different types and sizes of irons available for freeze branding. Solid copper irons ¼ to 5/6 inch thick work well, and the numbers, letters or symbols are generally 1 to 1.5 inches wide and up to four inches high if more than one number is used. A single number can be as much as five inches high.

Procedure – Irons should be placed in a plastic or Styrofoam ice chest (never metal) if you are using alcohol and dry ice. It's a good idea to set the ice chest inside another more durable container to keep it from being broken. The fluid should be deep enough for the irons to be submerged (with at least an inch of fluid over the top of them). About two inches of crushed dry ice should cover the bottom of the container. The mixture will slowly evaporate so if branding takes awhile you'll need to periodically add more dry ice and alcohol to keep the irons submerged.

It takes about 15 to 20 minutes from the time you place the irons into the solution until they are cold enough to use. The more irons there are in the container, the longer it takes. They are ready to use when the mixture stops bubbling and frost builds up around the base of the irons. If you reuse an iron, make sure it is put back in the coolant for at least two to four minutes before using it again. When a used iron is put back into the coolant, more bubbles will appear again. The bubbling will slow to a constant rate when the iron has reached minimum temperature and is ready to be re-used.

The animal should be safely restrained so it can't move. The area to be branded should first be brushed clean, and clipped. The shorter it's clipped, the less time you need to leave the iron against the skin. You'll also need a clean rag or stiff bristle brush to clean off the clipped area, so there's no debris such as loose hair or skin scurf to interfere with the iron getting next to the hide.

If the hair and hide are wet from rain or washing, thoroughly dry the brand site so there's no water on it. Then spray the area with a layer of room-temperature alcohol to completely wet the shaved skin. A clean squirt bottle of any kind will work for this. The alcohol will remove some of the skin oils and also helps transfer the cold temperature more readily from the branding iron to the skin. Some people like to apply the alcohol twice—using the first application to help remove any dirt or loose hair, rubbing it off, and then spraying the area again. Immediately after the final spraying with alcohol, remove the appropriate iron from the cold liquid and apply it to the area, pressing firmly and squarely, with a slight rocking motion to make sure the iron is in good contact.

You need a timer or watch with a second hand, to make sure you apply the irons long enough. Start checking the time as soon as the iron is applied to the skin. When using liquid nitrogen, the irons should be pressed against the hide for approximately 20 to 45 seconds depending on the species and age of animal and the outdoor temperature. For young horses with thin skin, 6 to 12 seconds is adequate. For adult horses it will take 8 to 12 seconds. A calf has thicker hide and the iron should be left on for 21 to 24 seconds. For adult cattle it will usually take 25 to 30 seconds or more. Hot weather and thicker hides require longer branding time.

When using alcohol and dry ice, the irons should be pressed against the hide longer, usually for 45 to 60 seconds. White cattle will need at least 60 seconds in order to completely kill the hair follicles so the brand will then be bare skin. When branding foals with dry ice and alcohol, the iron should be left on for 16 to 24 seconds. Adult horses take 20 to 24 seconds. Calves require 40 to 50 seconds and adult cattle 50 to 60 seconds.

Begin timing when the iron first touches the hide, and apply enough pressure for good contact with the entire surface of the iron. The animal may feel pain for the first 10 seconds. After that the nerve endings are frozen and the animal usually doesn't protest or try to move much as you continue applying the brand.

Take care when selecting the brand site to be sure it's a smooth surface. If you are branding on the shoulder, for example, make sure the iron is not partially on a thin muscle over the shoulder blade and partially on a thicker muscled area. This could create unequal pressure, producing a non-uniform brand, with some hairs growing in colored instead of white.

WHAT THE BRAND WILL LOOK LIKE - As soon as you remove the iron, you'll notice a frozen indentation in the skin. This will disappear within about five minutes and the area will begin to swell. The swelling will make the brand look two or three times bigger than the finished brand will be, and it may stay swollen for two to three days. After the swelling goes down, the brand may not be very easy to see for a while unless a welt remains, but a small scab may form. Within about 20 to 30 days the frozen skin will become flaky, scaling off, and the scab will be coming loose. Once it is gone, some short, fine white hair (like peach fuzz) will begin to appear. The length of time it takes for the white hair to fully grow in will depend on the time of year the animal was branded.


Don't forget to BOOKMARK  
Cattle Today Online!