The American cowboy branding his livestock with ropes flying, brands in a blazing fire and a stream of smoke rising as hot iron leaves its mark on a range animal is an essential part of the story of the Old West. But some modern cattle producers are turning to a method of branding their animals that’s much cooler.
Developed during the late 1960s, freeze branding is the practice of applying super-cooled branding irons to livestock as a way of creating a permanent mark of identification.
"Where a hot brand kills the hair follicle, freeze branding damages the hair follicle, causing the hair to grow back white rather than not grow back at all," said Perry Mobley, Director of the Alabama Farmers Federation Beef Division.
Thefts in recent months have forced cattle producers across the country to realize rustling is not just a myth of the Old West, leading many to consider how they can improve the security of their herds.
"I wish more people would consider branding their cattle. An animal’s brand can be altered by criminals, but it’s difficult to do and even more so with a freeze brand. Branding is the most time-proven method of animal identification, and it is a legally recognized form of proof-of-ownership," said Mobley.
Sunshine Farms near Clanton has been freeze branding its cattle with both a farm brand and individual animal identification for years, and cattle manager Jamie McConnell said he’s always freeze branded cattle.
"Sunshine was freeze branding before I came to work here five years ago, but I did freeze branding on my cattle before I came here," said McConnell.
"It really creates a sharp, easy-to-read brand on dark-colored cattle," McConnell added, making freeze brands a perfect fit for Sunshine Farms Angus, Simmental and Sim-Angus herds.
Freeze branding irons are cooled with either liquid nitrogen or a combination of alcohol and dry ice. While dry ice has a temperature of 90 degrees below 0 Fahrenheit, liquid nitrogen is even more frigid at 240 degrees below 0 Fahrenheit, and both substances should be handled carefully as injury can occur if either comes in contact with skin.
Sunshine Farms uses liquid nitrogen, and McConnell and Ckecof Garcia pour the nitrogen from its holding tank into an old five-gallon cooler, place the needed irons in the mixture and cover with a heavy blanket. For the initial cooling, irons need to be submerged for 15 to 20 minutes then cooled again between each use.
Once the cow is secured in the chute, the area on the animal to be branded should be clipped smooth, and in the case of Sunshine Farms, cows are given a farm brand on the right hip and an individual identification brand on the left hip.
After the clipped area is brushed or wiped to remove any loose hair or other debris, McConnell drenches the clipped area with 92 percent alcohol to aid in temperature transfer between the iron and the skin to ensure better branding.
Immediately following the alcohol drench, McConnell removes the farm brand from the coolant, carefully aligns and firmly applies it to the prepped area. A gentle rocking motion from side to side and top to bottom helps ensure all areas of the brand come in full contact with the animal’s hide.
Timing is difficult to estimate because many variables can effect the time needed to establish a good brand. The particular coolant used, the temperature and humidity, and the type and age of cattle can all effect branding times.
"Cattle with less hair, like longhorns, seem to take less (contact) time," said McConnell.
The Alabama Cooperative Extension System recommends contact time of 35 to 60 seconds for beef cattle. Insufficient branding times can result in spotty or only partially white brands. A brand applied for too much time can kill the hair follicles, resulting in a brand more similar to a traditional hot brand. Extending the contact time in this way is recommended to kill hair follicles on lighter haired animals. Careful record-keeping of branding times can help individuals determine what length of time works best for a given herd.
One aspect of freeze branding any cattle producer should note is the increased time a freeze brand will take to appear as compared to traditional hot branding. Immediately after freeze branding, a slight indentation of the brand can be seen, followed by a slight swelling for several days.
"In a few weeks, the skin will peel away, and new white hair growth should start. The brands show up faster if cows are branded as they get ready to grow a new coat," said McConnell.
On the left hip, Sunshine Farms follows breed guidelines for individual identification branding including the use of a letter and number system to indicate the year the cow was born. This requires the use of multiple brands, something taking a little more time and attention, but creates an individual identification that can easily be seen from a much greater distance than an ear tag.
Any farm brands must be registered with the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, although registration is not needed in the case of branding for individual animal identification.
"Not only must the brand itself be registered, but also the location for the brand. If someone registers a farm brand for the left hip, then applies that brand to the right rib, it is not a legal brand," cautioned Mobley.
Mobley added smaller producers are sometimes less likely to brand than those working with larger operations, but Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries Ron Sparks reminds cattle owners branding is an inexpensive way to protect cattle in any size operation.
"There are more than 1,700 brands registered with the Department of Agriculture and Industries," said Commissioner Ron Sparks.
"The number tends to decrease each year, but it is still one of the most cost effective ways to help protect your cattle. Brand registration costs anywhere from $20 for a basic initial brand up to $48 for eight characters. To register a brand, just call the Department or go online to our website and print out an application. Our staff will check the database and register your brand. Registrations come up every three years," added Sparks.
For more information on brand registration, contact Michelle Landon at (334) 240-7263. The website address is http://agi.alabama.gov/stock_brand_forms.
To learn more about freeze branding, contact your local Cooperative Extension Office or visit the agency online at www.aces.edu.
Kellie Henderson is a freelance writer from Troy.