Branding time elicits different feelings depending on who you talk to. Ask a rancher about branding and you may hear phrases about tradition, family, friends and neighbors, or “It’s a happy time of the year!” However, if you ask someone from the city that did not grow up around cattle, you may hear comments about pain, cruelty, gross, or “That’s awful abuse!” So why the drastic difference in perception of this husbandry practice? How do these different perceptions impact the recommendations that ranchers are suggested to use on their cattle?

Science-based recommendations

Much of the research about branding methods was completed prior to the 2000’s. A study evaluating behavioral and physiological effects of both hot-iron and freeze branding, along with a sham branding control (cool iron), on crossbred calves found that cortisol concentrations (hormone released during stress or pain) were not different between treatments (Lay et al., 1992a). Mean plasma epinephrine concentrations were elevated for hot-iron branded calves 30 seconds post-branding compared to sham or freeze-branded calves. Higher epinephrine concentrations indicate greater instantaneous pain sensation because epinephrine increases with psychological stress. A more intense physical stress is associated with norepinephrine increase which was not observed. Both freeze and hot-iron branding tended to have higher mean heart rates 30 seconds post-branding compared to sham-branded calves. The general handling and restraint raised plasma cortisol concentrations regardless of treatment. Also, both hot-iron and freeze-branded calves displayed escape-avoidance behaviors to the branding process. Another study using animal behavior and physiological measures of pain sensation showed cows exhibited less escape-avoidance behavior with freeze branding than hot-iron branding (Lay et al., 1992b).These studies showed that both hot and freeze branding result in some pain, but freeze branding is a preferred alternative to hot-iron branding to reduce pain and minimize scar damage of the hide.

Canadian researchers studied steer behavior during hot-iron and freeze branding, and then evaluated the ease of subsequent handling post-branding (Schwartzkopf-Genswein et al., 1997). Hot-iron branded steers showed the greatest number of tail-flicks, kicks, falls, and vocalizations than freeze or sham-branded steers. Freeze-branded steers only differed from sham-branded steers in the number of tail flicks. Hot-iron branded steers had greater average and maximum exertion forces of longer duration than freeze and sham-branded steers. Freeze-branded steers still had higher values than sham-branded steers, indicating both methods result in some pain. There were no differences in handling ease between treatments. All steers regardless of treatment required more handling efforts for up to 6 days post-branding, which indicates that handling in general impacted subsequent responses. These results suggest that freeze branding results in less discomfort and is a better alternative to hot-iron branding in terms of pain experienced.

Another study evaluated multiple techniques to assess steer responses to branding including: image analysis, force exerted on the headgate, and behavioral responses (Schwartzkopf-Genswein et al., 1998). Researchers found that hot-iron branded steers had the largest maximum and average head movement distances above freeze-branded steers, followed by sham branding. The maximum exertion force on the headgate was higher in hot-iron branded steers than freeze or sham-branded. Hot-iron branded steers had the greatest incidence of tail flicks, kicks, falls in the chute, and vocalizations, while sham-branded steers had the least.

In many cattle raising areas, hot-iron branding is still the predominant method of permanent identification. Recent research evaluated two options to alleviate pain or speed-up the healing process to improve animal well-being (Tucker et al., 2014a and 2014b). The conclusions were that neither a single injection of a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug nor a cooling gel applied at branding sped up healing rate or minimized wound sensitivity during the healing process that took up to 8+ weeks to complete.

In summary, freeze branding is a more desirable option than hot-iron branding because it elicits a milder pain response and can minimize hide damage.

Welfare label program standards

Note: Mention of specific labeling programs does not indicate an endorsement by SDSU Extension, it just provides practical examples of current standards of labeling programs.

Now that we have looked at the science behind branding methods, let’s also look at some of the societal, marketing-driven standards concerning permanent identification methods in cattle. Two of the more well-known labeling programs are Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) and Global Animal Partnership 5-Step™ Animal Welfare Rating (GAP-5).

The preferred method of permanent identification in the AWA program is a sub-cutaneous radio frequency identification device (RFID). Applying an RFID under the skin is less painful than all other methods of permanent identification, plus it does not limit natural behavior or distort the animal’s appearance. It does however add cost to raising each animal. Ear tags and tattoos are still allowed, while hot-iron and freeze branding are prohibited. It should be noted that when branding is required by law, a rancher can contact the AWA office requesting permission. When practical, freeze-branding on the flank or rump is encouraged over hot-iron branding.

In the GAP-5 program, individual animal identification is required for all Steps though a specific “recommended method” is not stated. For Steps 1 through 4, producers can use any form of identification except ear notching or wattling (making a cut on the skin of the neck or jaw). Additional guidance on ear tags is given for all Steps stating, “No more than two ear tags per animal are permitted.” However, when “two ear tags are required by law, a third tag may be used providing it does not interfere with the animal’s ability to express normal behavior”. When branding, ranchers are encouraged to use freeze branding instead of hot-iron branding based on the scientific evidence of it being less painful. For South Dakota ranchers, state law requires hot iron branding to create a legal brand. Ranchers are asked to implement the best management practices advised by universities for the process of freeze-branding. The GAP-5 program specifically prohibits face branding for all Steps. Branding is prohibited if a producer desires to reach the 5 or 5+ Steps. Even though the GAP-5 program states, “No standards in this document may supersede local, regional, or national regulations or laws,” some higher Step standards (Steps 5 and 5+) could limit rancher participation at these Steps where laws require branding.

The ideal permanent identification method is always considered the least painful method. Branding by any method is viewed as a painful process and may be discouraged to qualify for specific higher welfare standards of labeling programs.

Cattle industry recommendations

Based on the National Beef Quality Assurance guidelines found in the Cattle Industry Guidelines for the Care and Handling of Cattle and the National BQA Manual, “Branding, ear-tagging, ear-notching, and RFIDs are methods of identifying cattle.” Identification methods that are strongly discouraged include: wattling, ear splitting, or other surgical alterations. If ranchers choose branding, the brand should never be placed on the jaw or face, but high on the hip to limit the loss of value to the hide. South Dakota ranchers must place their registered brand on the specific area the brand is registered. This can be one of six locations: shoulder, rib, or hip placed on either the left or the right side. It is noted that placing brands on the ribs or having multiple brands can devalue cattle by $5 to $25 per head. Improper branding technique, both hot-iron or freeze branding, can even result in damage to the underlying muscle leading to toughness of the meat. These national guidelines stress the importance of proper training and the use of proper equipment when hot-iron or freeze branding is chosen. Training in both the branding process and the recognition of complications for all people involved ensures the process is performed quickly to minimize cattle stress.

Upon reviewing the permanent identification methods, multiple acceptable options for cattle ranchers exist with varying levels of pain. Researchers continue to investigate methods of pain management and wound healing for painful husbandry practices, such as branding. Even with society desiring higher welfare standards for meat products, standards of these labeling programs still allow ranchers the flexibility to properly identify cattle while attaining some market opportunities that these specific labeling programs may offer.

Questions about brand registration and South Dakota regulations should be directed to the South Dakota Brand Board.