Whether to identify ownership or individual animal identification, freeze branding is becoming increasingly popular for its permanent ID attributes offered in an easy-to-read and eye-appealing white package.
“For us, freeze branding is first and foremost a marketing tool we hope will aid us capturing more value — we want people to see our red or black-hided cattle and know that because of that brand, there is value under that hide. Secondly, it’s a risk-reducer from a theft prevention standpoint. Plus, we really like the way it looks on the animal,” says John Kleiboeker, a southwest Missouri commercial cattleman who recently implemented a freeze-branding program in his herd.
For registered Brangus producer Bart Carter, the decision to begin freeze branding his cattle in 1997 was multi-faceted as well.
“For one thing, it just looks cool. That white brand on a black-hided animal has a lot of eye appeal. Plus, we run our cows in about 40 sections, and clarity and ability to read a brand and cow number from a long distance was one deciding factor. We can also keep track of our breeding records right on the cow with freeze brands, and never lose that information,” he explains.
Several key considerations ranging from proper animal preparation to specific branding techniques can help producers achieve nearly 100% readable freeze-branded characters.
“The body condition of the animal is huge,” says JT Guest of a major factor that will affect brand quality, regardless of the brand application technique that is used. Guest is based in Wyoming and professionally freeze-brands thousands of head annually across the Western U.S. He says he consistently produces 95% or higher “very readable” digits.
“When I’ve freeze-branded thin cattle, the brands show up very faint or not at all. Make sure the cattle are carrying plenty of condition,” he continues.
Taking your time is the second-biggest component that impacts brand quality, according to Guest. He recommends placing one iron on the hide at a time, and carefully timing the correct number of seconds based on the brand method chosen.
“Other factors include the facilities and time of year. If it’s too warm, you’ll have to keep the irons on longer and adjust accordingly. In northern states, many guys go by the rule of thumb that you don’t freeze brand before Thanksgiving or after Easter, although I’ve done it into the first of May and not had the warming temperatures cause variance.
“In addition, good facilities should be used out of the wind, so the weather won’t affect the temperature of your irons, and the chute needs to be something that can aid in holding the animal still. Animals also have to be dry for freeze branding to work successfully,” Guest explains.
Commonly used methods of freeze branding include using a combination of dry ice and 99% isopropyl alcohol, or liquid nitrogen.
“Liquid nitrogen is nice in that it allows you to go a lot faster — you keep irons on the hide for 14-25 seconds, vs. 50-60 seconds with the dry ice-alcohol method. However, I use the dry ice-alcohol method because the brand is a much brighter white. Plus, it’s more forgiving in that, if you happen to stay on the hide too long, the brand will still show up. If you stay on too long with liquid nitrogen, even say five seconds, that brand will burn the hide and be more like a hot-iron brand, and the hair won’t turn white,” Guest says.
An economical alternative
For both Carter and Kleiboeker, cost and the lack of availability of nitrogen and 99% alcohol lead them to use an alternative alcohol in the form of high-octane gasoline.
“We can’t get liquid nitrogen in volume in our location, nor can you get pure alcohol over the counter. For the last two years, we’ve used high-octane gasoline and dry ice to keep our irons cold. The gasoline is readily available, less expensive and works very well,” Carter notes.
Regardless of which method is selected, Guest recommends allowing the irons — brass being his preference — to sit with the digits submerged in the cooling mixture for 30-45 minutes prior to beginning. He adds that liquid nitrogen should be at -344° F, and the dry ice-alcohol mixture at -112° F.
When physically branding cattle, it is suggested that the area where the brand will be placed be clipped short with grooming clippers, then brushed or blown clean. Before applying the irons, saturate the area with 99% alcohol, even if the irons are cooled in a gasoline-dry ice mixture.
“Make sure you have plenty of labor, especially your first time. When we freeze-brand, it’s me, my wife and our five sons, and we’re all busy. One of our sons is specifically in charge of a stopwatch, and his job is to start that immediately as we lay the irons on and tell us when to take them off, so that we are getting contact for the correct length of time,” Kleiboeker says.
Carter adds that setting aside enough time is another critical component to success when freeze branding.
“It’s a timely process, and you must be patient. You also need a crew who cares and isn’t in a hurry. If they rush and are letting those irons move or not placing them exactly in the same place when they come off, you could end up with an illegible brand, and spend a lot of time for nothing,” he says.
In the instance of reusing an iron for back-to-back digits, Guest recommends allowing it to sit in the cooling mixture for five minutes between uses to ensure it drops to the correct temperature.
“I also recommend taking notes on each animal, particularly if you’ve had problems in the past. It takes 2-3 months for that hair follicle to turn white, so you won’t know your success rate immediately. Maybe it didn’t show up because that animal jumped around the whole time and you couldn’t get good contact, but you probably won’t remember that several months later. By taking notes, you can make practical, knowledgeable adjustments to improve your future success rate,” Guest says.
Hiring the job done
For those who hire someone to do their freeze branding, Guest suggests figuring payment in a way that doesn’t encourage rushing.
“I charge per digit plus mileage vs. a per-head fee, because that prevents me from just trying to get as many done per day as possible,” he explains.
All three men say they typically see 96-98% of their digits show up well using their preferred methods. However, they agree that it’s unrealistic to expect every digit on every animal to be a success.
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“There are some animals on which the brand just doesn’t show up. I have heard some say that may be due to genetic characteristics related to pigment cells in the hide. For whatever reason, there will be the occasional animal on which the brand will be very spotty, or not turn white at all,” Carter says.
However, all three agree that the overall success rate they each experience is very acceptable, particularly when considering the results.
“Freeze branding can be a powerful combination identification, marketing and risk-reducing tool. Plus, it just pops against the cattle’s natural hair color and looks cool,” Kleiboeker concludes.
Freeze branding methods - pros and cons
Iron application time: 14-25 seconds
- Advantages: faster application time
- Disadvantages: duller brands, less forgiving in that if iron is applied too long, result will be similar to a hot-iron brand and hair will not turn white
- Other considerations: availability of nitrogen.
Dry ice, 99% alcohol
Iron application time: 50-60 seconds
- Advantages: brighter brands, more forgiving in that if iron is applied too long, hair pigment will still turn white
- Disadvantages: slower application time
- Other considerations: availability of ingredients.
Dry ice, high-octane gasoline
Iron application time: 50-60 seconds
- Advantages: brighter brands, cheaper and more readily available source of alcohol, more forgiving than if the freeze-branding iron is applied too long, the hair pigment will still turn white
- Disadvantages: slower application time
Other considerations: producers suggest using gasoline in lieu of 99% alcohol to keep irons cool, but still to use 99% alcohol to wet hide pre-branding or to mist irons while branding.
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