Tuesday, April 12, 2011

It's All There in Black and White

The concept of branding cattle has been around for hundreds of years. In the days of the Wild West, fences were not as abundant as they are today. Cattle would graze on the open range and it was common for different cattle herds to become mixed with each other. When it was time to round up the cattle, the brand provided a way to separate them and get them back to the rightful owner. In those days, hot branding irons were used to burn the brand into the animal’s hide. Today, a more humane technique of branding is used and this is termed ‘Freeze Branding.’

This past weekend Adam and I took advantage of the wonderful weather by working our yearling heifers and turning them out to the pasture. Part of this process involves putting a permanent identification on the animal. To do this we freeze brand each one with its own number and the year it was first bred. In this case, 2011. Identification of each animal is an important aspect on a farm or ranch; it aids in keeping more accurate cattle records on each animal as far as age, which bull an animal is bred to each year and so on. We put ear tags in each ear, but those can be lost over time; a brand is there forever.

Freeze branding uses cold temperatures to turn off the pigment of the hair. When the hair grows back, usually in about 90 days, it will be white. This provides a nice contrast against the black hair of the animal and a way for us to easily identify a cow from a distance. The entire process of branding is a laborious one. First, the branding irons are placed in a cooler with a dry ice and gasoline mixture. The irons must cool for about 20 minutes in order for the branding process to work. Next, the cattle are put into a squeeze chute. The hair is then clipped off over the rib cage; then rubbing alcohol is applied to the hide to numb the skin. Our personal brand is then held on the animal for approximately one minute to ensure the brand will show up when the hair regrows. The symbol of the brand will be indented on the hide for a few minutes, then it will disappear and you won’t even be able to see it again until the hair regrows. Holding the iron in the same place on the animal can be a challenging process due to the fact that the animal can move around in the chute. In order to produce a satisfactory final product (i.e. a clear brand and not a blurred one) the branding operator must exhibit strength and stamina. He or she must be able to hold the brand in the same place for a minute and be able to move with the animal so the brand does stays in the same place. A minute may not seem like a long time, but when you are putting up to 6 symbols on the animal the time adds up quickly. On this particular day Adam and my cousin, Gavin Swearngin, were responsible for placing the brand on the animal. Gavin’s help was greatly appreciated and it made the process go smoothly due to the fact he has a lot of experience freeze branding cattle from growing up on the Swearngin Angus ranch.

The technique of freeze branding is less stressful on the animal than hot branding. Freeze branding only affects the hair follicle, and the animal only experiences mild muscle soreness once the process is complete. The colder temperature is also safer for the person doing the branding because they don’t have to worry about being burned by a hot iron.

A brand is not just something we put on the animal to say that we own it. The brand is a symbol we, and many other farmers and ranchers, take tremendous pride in. It is our sign to let others know where the cattle came from and it is also a symbol of our hard work and dedication to the beef industry. It also symbolizes the many hours spent caring for the animal and time spent selecting genetics we want to use and exhibit in our herd. On our farm we place the brand over the ribcage, then the numbers are placed below that. We use a numbering system that identifies the cow, such as 3. The year the heifer was bred is placed after that. For example 3-11 tells us the cow is number 3 and that she was bred for the first time in the summer of 2011.

When we were done working the yearling heifers we let them have some time to de-stress before we loaded them in the trailer to take them to the pasture. They are now enjoying the green grass and wide-open spaces of the pasture and will be there until the fall.

To learn some additional information about branding visit Kelsey Pope's blog: Ag on the Forefront.

Clipping the hair over the area where the brand
will be placed

Putting our personal brand on the animal.

The indentation of the brand. This will go away after a
few minutes.

Putting the numbers on the heifer.

Putting the year the heifer was bred on the animal.

The process is now complete. You can see that the
top brand is almost completely gone.

Adam and Gavin working together to put the
brand on the animal.

This is a picture of what the brand will look like once the
hair regrows. This cow was branded in the spring of 2009,
and as you can see the brand is easy to read and the cow can
be identified from a distance.

The heifers enjoying the green grass in the pasture.

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