Freeze Branding Cattle

Freeze branding is a method of cattle and horse identification that has been around for at least fifty years. Because of a job I had in the cattle business several years ago, I became heavily involved with freeze branding cattle and have helped brand over 12,000 cattle. I wish I could say that makes me an expert on the procedure, but that would not be true. It is a process that has received very little research during this time period, and I think that is unfortunate. I like to believe that 75% of the people I brand for are happy with their brands 75% of the time. When someone says to me that they are sick of losing ear tags and want to replace that form of identification with freeze branding, I caution them to use both.

I classify completed freeze brands into three categories. A “great” brand is readable year round, through long winter hair growth, muddy weather, bulling, you name it. If most brands were “great”, we wouldn’t need ear tags. Most brands end up being what I call “adequate brands”. An “adequate brand” is usually easily readable during summer into late fall then becomes readable about half the time during winter into spring calving (unless clipped). Unfortunately, this is the time when a lot of producers need a clear readable brand most. A “poor” brand is only readable when the animal is clipped. Remember though, even a “poor” brand permanently identifies the animal. I’ve had clients who have me clip the hair over their brands every year, a couple months prior to calving, and replace any lost ear tags matching the brands at the same time. This includes their Charlois cattle as well. To me this may be one of the better systems of identification for the average producer.

Example of a "Great Brand"

I can’t tell you what it takes to make the perfect brand but I do have the following advice.

  1. Brand all females before they have their first calf. I think the best time period is from three months after they’re weaned up to two months before they calve. Do not brand heifers in the first few months after they’ve calved. I don’t care how well you’ve fed them, they are a different animal post-calving that first time. I have branded every color of cattle at every stage of life. Don’t be afraid of branding the whole mature cow herd; just don’t expect the same results you will get with those younger females.

  2. Never brand cattle that are extremely mangy or in poor body condition. We all have that problem on some of our cows, some of the time, but it is not conducive to getting a high percentage of good brands. On farms where I tried to brand wild cows, in poor body condition, and have had trouble finding an unrubbed area to brand, the producers were very disappointed with the quality of the brands. It would be good advice to pour your cattle at least two months prior to branding if you see them rubbing at all.

  3. Don’t expect higher brand qualities if your animals are highly anxious and try to tear the chute apart while they're being branded. This problem seems to becoming less of an issue as some of the earlier breeds of exotics are improved (although all cattle can act wild when incorrect management practices are used). In these last few years I have had the luxury of branding quite a few cattle in hydraulic squeeze chutes run by operators who know what they are doing. Believe me, it is a different ballgame to brand a restrained animal as opposed to one who throws itself and/or knocks the irons off again and again. We forget how the animal behaved when we are evaluating the brands several months or years later.

  4. Of course brands show up better on black cattle and at this time in history, mysteriously, most breeds of cattle seem to have turned black. But there is a difference in blackness and hide type. The purebred black Angus hide seems to be darker and a little thicker than the black exotic, I don’t know why but it affects brand quality. The highest quality of brands will come from branding purebred Angus cattle that are in good body condition and have a good disposition. I’m not doing an advertisement for Angus, just stating what I believe to be fact. Angus bulls on feed test are even better for branding; check out the AI catalogs if you don’t believe me and look at the Angus bull brands. Sometimes I get great brands on red, yellow, and other shades, but less frequently. Brown seems to work pretty well.

  5. There seems to be some debate over the location, on the cattle, to place the brands. I have branded thousands on the hip, but lately I have switched a lot of brands to the ribs. I have branded a few bulls on the shoulders and have gotten along pretty well running the numbers down instead of horizontally. I don't think where you put the brand matters as much as the body condition, disposition and genetics of the animal.

  6. I use 4-inch irons, some people use 6-inch. There is a big difference in the size of the brand on a mature animal. I don’t know of any benefit either way; you either get a good brand or you don’t. I can brand two numbers at a time holding a 4-inch iron in each hand. I don’t believe that’s realistically possible while trying to use the 6-inch irons, so more time will be taken in completing the branding task.

  7. We use dry ice because it is available locally, easy to use, and a little more tolerant to “over-branding” the cattle. By over-branding I mean leaving the irons on too long. The goal is to alter the skin pigmentation so that the hair grows back white instead of the previous color. Leaving the irons on too long produces the same effect as hot iron branding does. You kill everything and no hair grows back leaving only a scar brand as your identification. We do use this system on Charlois cattle. The number one way to ruin a brand is too leave the irons on too long, contrary to what a lot of people would believe.

  8. Make sure your restraining chute features drop down side bars that allow for free forward and back movement of the irons. If not, the cattle will give you a lesson in knocking off the branding irons again and again.

Currently I am charging $7/head for branding if I use your chute, for up to three digits per animal. I do have a chute that I can bring that will weigh the cattle as well. If I bring it, I have a $25 chute charge. I try not to worry about mileage, but remember, I need to have enough cattle in one trip to justify paying for dry ice, alcohol, fuel, labor, etc. Generally, I like to do two or three producers in the same neighborhood, the same day. It takes about three minutes per animal for two digits (or three digits if somebody is willing to hold on one iron). Naturally it takes longer if I do it all by myself and there are more then two digits. I do need electricity to run the clippers. The cattle are restrained, clipped, brand area scrubbed up a little bit, then branded. It takes about two months for the brand to grow back in.

A good alternative program is to take your heifers to a vet clinic such as the Corning Vet Clinic or Guthrie Center Clinic. While there, the vet can examine them for pelvic area, do a uterine tract score to determine if each heifer is a potential breeder, vaccinate, weigh and then I can brand.  Also, it is a good time to replace ear tags and have them match your new freeze brands. Check with your clinic to see if this is possible. Remember, the vet is going to have to wait for the brand process and they must be willing to do this.
For questions or comments, contact me. Maybe you know the perfect system for freeze branding cattle. I’d love to hear your advice. 641-202-1850,

Thanks, Bill