In the previous article, we looked at natural characteristics of animals that make individual identification possible, even at a distance.
These may vary from extremely distinctive and valuable, to hardly distinguishable and practically useless. So reliably linking an animal to its owner requires a widely accepted, standardised and tamper-proof marking system, integrated with and supported by a record- keeping system.
Branding in SA
Originally, branding cattle was a rough-and-ready affair, but modern practice is far more efficient in terms of both manpower and time. Cattle are normally driven into a crush and then herded single-file into a confined chute or passage, where each animal can be safely secured for branding.
Other types of restraint include the squeeze chute (for larger cattle) that closes on either side of a standing animal, and the branding cradle in which a calf or weaner is firmly held and then rotated onto its side. A further, more recent development is the immobiliser, a device which applies a carefully controlled electric current to the animal, temporarily immobilising it.
Traditional branding irons may still be heated in a wood or coal fire, while more sophisticated modern types are heated with gas or even electrically.
In contrast to hot-iron branding, freeze branding is nearly painless. The branding iron is chilled to an extremely low temperature in dry ice, alcohol, or liquid nitrogen. A freeze brand does not burn a scar into the hide, but damages the pigment-producing cells, causing the hair to grow out white where the brand was applied.
In freeze branding, the hair acts as insulation and prevents the extreme cold from directly reaching the skin. Immediately before applying the iron, the skin is rubbed or sprayed with 99% alcohol. The head of the freeze branding iron, made from a metal with good heat conduction properties to rapidly remove heat from the skin, is submerged in the coolant and cooled to a very low temperature.
The iron is then pressed firmly onto the skin for a few seconds. The exact duration depends on the species, the thickness of the hide and the colour of the hair coat, the metal that the branding iron is made of, and the coolant used.
The next article will deal specifically with branding techniques.