For as long as cowboys have been working with animals, they've used hot irons to mark their brand. Another method is freeze branding, which is easier to read, and less painful.
Photo courtesy Virginia Tech
Radio interview source: Scott Greiner, Extension Animal Scientist, Virigina Tech
The permanent mark of a brand on livestock is important for proving ownership of lost or stolen animals. Hot branding has been the historical choice, but it causes hide damage, reducing its value.
Scott Greiner is an extension animal scientist at Virginia Tech University. He says freeze branding kills the pigment-producing cells on the hair follicle, rather than making a permanent mark on the skin. When the hair re-grows, it comes in white, making it easy to see.
"We're wanting to know the identification of a cow from a long distance, and freeze brands you can see from across the field as opposed to the little ear tag even though if the ear tag is big you have to get relatively close to read it," he says. "It's a pretty time-consuming process, so generally it's just done on breeding animals."
Freeze branding irons are made of heavy copper or bronze. They're usually dipped in dry ice combined with alcohol. It takes about one-pound of dry ice per animal branded, but at least ten-pounds of ice is needed to cool down the irons.
"We put the brand in that combination of alcohol and dry ice to get the branding irons very cold," says Greiner. "We prep the area of the animal by shearing it and getting it clean, and then dampening it with the alcohol, and then apply the freeze brand. We apply the freeze on the animal for a different length of time depending on size and age of the animal, generally."
Liquid nitrogen can also be used, but you have to be very careful not to leave the irons on the animal for too long. It can kill the hair follicles, creating a mark on the skin similar to a hot brand.
The animal feels minimal pain because the area quickly becomes numb. In a few weeks, the brand will begin to peel, and unpigmented hair will grow back in its place.
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