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Fire and ice: Branding materials and techniques

Heather Smith Thomas for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 June 2019
Freeze branding a newer calf

Proof of livestock ownership in the western half of the U.S. is a hot iron brand, and in some herds freeze branding is used for individual animal ID. Creating a good-looking brand depends on proper technique and materials.

Hot iron branding

Dr. James England, University of Idaho, says most branding is done with the animals in a chute, or roped and stretched on the ground, or on a calf table, adequately restrained. “The hotter the iron, whether heated in a fire, propane burner or with electricity, the better the brand. The iron should be cherry red; then you don’t have to leave it on very long – just a few seconds.”

Branding irons can be made of mild steel, stainless steel or brass. “I don’t like brass for hot branding because it’s hard to tell (by color) when it’s hot. Many branding irons are homemade from regular iron, or custom-made at a supply shop,” England says.

Gary Cammack, a rancher who owns Cammack Ranch Supply in Union Center, South Dakota, sells two types of hot irons.

“We custom make stainless steel irons and ship them all over the country. We use stainless because mild steel tends to corrode. Any kind of fire creates a residue of rust – which acts as insulation, and it won’t heat as quickly. Propane fire, especially, will eventually cause iron to be consumed. If you look at really old branding irons, they may have flaked off enough to get sharp. They might burn clear through the hide because they’ve become too thin,” Cammack says.

The other type of branding iron is electric custom-made heating elements formed in the shape of the brand. “They can be any size, from 2 inches on up. Electric irons are nice because you can heat them quickly for branding one or two animals when you don’t want to fire up a propane heater. You plug in the electric branding iron, and it’s hot enough in three to five minutes to apply a brand,” he says.

“We have two element sizes, 3/16-inch and 3/8-inch. Ranchers mostly use the bigger size because it holds more heat. If they want a smaller brand for calves or horses, the smaller element is best,” Cammack says.

Make sure the area to brand is clean and dry, not covered with mud or manure. Wet hair and hide create a more severe burn. If hair is long, it should be clipped. Burning through thick hair takes longer, burns hotter and scalds the tissues deeper. The burned area is painful longer and takes longer to heal.

“Hold the iron in place until the brand is coppery golden brown, like shoe leather, and no longer,” England says. “Don’t overbrand or it will burn clear through the hide. If you leave it too long or apply too much pressure, it will burn too deeply and make a scar instead of a brand,” he says.

“On a white area, remember that unpigmented hide is thinner. Be careful to not burn through it,” says England. When branding calves, use a smaller iron. The brand grows with the animal.

“If you have a rib brand, try to get it re-registered for the hip, shoulder or thigh. A rib brand damages more hide and reduces its value. If you are branding thin animals over the ribs, be careful to avoid bone damage.”

Make sure the iron is hot enough and doesn’t cool down too much between animals. If it’s electric, make sure your cords are adequate and not too long, or you’ll lose some power and the iron won’t get as hot as it should. It will take longer to heat or reheat. Larger brands with more figures take longer to heat than a small brand.

A branding iron should be constructed with notches/separations on the surface where the lines of figures or letters come together. There should be an opening there so it won’t blotch. “If there’s a full circle, it may also damage blood supply to that area of the hide; it needs some breaks in the circle. This also helps the iron heat better and faster,” he says.

Freeze branding

Some freeze-brand irons are stainless steel. “The only way these work is if you get them really cold with liquid nitrogen,” says Cammack. “If you have a small stainless steel iron for horses and want to make a freeze brand instead of a hot brand, you can use it.”

The other type is brass. “These are best if you’re using dry ice and methanol. There’s greater mass of metal to hold and conduct cold better,” Cammack says.

England says the key for a successful freeze brand is clipping or shaving the area and pre-wetting the skin with alcohol. “This helps the branding iron conduct cold better,” he says. The area should be brushed clean, clipped, then brushed again so there’s no loose hair or skin scurf to interfere with the iron getting right next to the hide. If hair and hide are wet from rain or washing, thoroughly dry the brand site. Then apply alcohol to completely wet the shaved skin, and immediately apply the branding iron. He prefers liquid nitrogen to cool irons rather than alcohol and dry ice because you can get the irons colder and make a better brand.

Liquid nitrogen is the coldest fluid (minus 344ºF); the branding iron shouldn’t be left on the skin as long as when using dry ice and alcohol. One source of liquid nitrogen is probably your local artificial inseminator or someone with stored semen. “Unless you’ll be branding all day, you don’t need very much,” says England.

Branding irons can be placed in a small Styrofoam container, set inside a more durable container and covered – to minimize evaporation. “A small ice chest with inch- to 1.5-inch-thick wall works, with a hole in the lid to put the handle through so you can keep the lid on. The fluid should be deep enough for the irons to be submerged. It takes a few minutes for them to chill enough. If they’re not already cold when you put them in, it makes the liquid nitrogen bubble (boil). They are ready to use again when the fluid stops bubbling,” England says.

“If you are branding a newborn calf, with thin skin, apply the iron for only 20 seconds. If a calf is more than a week old, leave it on about 35 seconds. I usually don’t leave it more than 40 seconds, even on an older animal. With a close clip and alcohol to pre-wet the skin, you don’t need to leave it any longer than that,” says England. A squeeze bottle and/or spray bottle works to apply alcohol. The 70% isopropyl alcohol conducts cold uniformly and leaves a nice crisp edge on the brand.

Use a timer or a watch with a second hand to make sure you apply the irons long enough and no longer. Begin timing when the iron first touches the hide, and apply enough pressure for good contact with the entire surface of the iron, says England.

Calves should be adequately restrained. “They’ll jump when they feel the cold iron but not as much as with a hot iron,” he says.

When you remove the iron, there will be a frozen indentation that quickly disappears. The branded tissue may swell for a few days. After that, the brand may not be easy to see until the new (white) hair grows in.  end mark

PHOTO: When freeze branding a newer calf, apply the iron only around 20 seconds for newborns and 35 seconds for those a bit older. Photo provided by Heather Smith Thomas.

Heather Thomas is a freelance writer based in Idaho.

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