Cattle branding: how to get it right every time

If branding is carried out poorly, it can lead to infection, muscle damage, and brands that are difficult to read. Shane Brody explains how to ensure safe, effective branding.

Cattle branding
Neat hot brands, achieved with the correct tools and technique.
Photo: FW Archive

Branding discourages stock theft and makes it easier for the police to trace the rightful owners when stolen animals are recovered. But to make branding work effectively, you need to follow certain guidelines.

The most important of these are: buy well-made branding irons; immobilise your animals securely during branding; make sure the branding fire is at the right temperature; and make sure that the person doing the branding is properly trained for the job.

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Failing to do these things can result in unnecessary suffering for the animal, cause muscle damage, and leave you with a messy, unreadable brand.

Branding irons can be bought from a farmers’ co-op store. They can be one of two types: each brand letter/number can be on a single iron, or all the letters/numbers can be on one iron.

The latter is usually custom-made and you therefore need to ensure that the letters/numbers are level with one another and the brand looks like the mark registered at the relevant authority.

A poorly made brand may not create a neat, visible brand and may cause severe hide or muscle damage.

Heating the branding irons
You can either have a special container made that retains heat from the coals or you can dig a hole about 1m long and 50cm wide to make the fire in.

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Lay irons on red-hot coals, not in the flames, as this may make the iron too hot. The colour of the iron will tell you when to remove it. If it’s still black, it’s not hot enough; if it’s ash grey, it’s at the right temperature; if glows red, it’s too hot.

Be very careful not to burn yourself when picking up the iron!

Keep the animal still, and brand neatly
The preferred place to brand is high on the upper hind leg/hip area. Keep the animal as immobile as possible, using a head clamp firmly fitted into a narrow cattle race or crush about 80cm wide.

A very wide crush can be made narrower by adding old car tyres linked to one another to the inside of the structure.

If you don’t have a neck clamp and the animal has horns, fit a rope to the horns and secure it to the poles that form the crush; never place ropes around the neck as this can result in suffocation.

Take the branding iron from the hot coals and apply it for three to five seconds until the hair is removed and a clear, brown mark is left in the hide. ‘Wobble’ the brand slightly in all directions to apply it evenly.

If using individual irons, ensure that the spacing between the letters is even, as per the relevant laws.

Never brand over an existing brand, as the new brand will be difficult to read in future. Rather brand next to, above or below the old brand.

If a brand needs to be repeated, place the iron on exactly the same spot on your first attempt. If you don’t do this, the brand will look untidy and may not be recognisable.

Other factors to consider
Very hairy cattle may need to be shaved on the branding area beforehand.

In addition:

  • Do not brand wet cattle. The branding iron will lose heat rapidly when it makes contact with the skin and the brand may therefore not be clearly visible afterwards.
  • Do not brand sickly or very thin animals, as the stress of branding may worsen their condition.
  • If a brand has penetrated too deeply, causing a wound, treat the animal with a healing oil or spray to avoid infection.

For important information on the local laws governing the marking of livestock, visit www.nda.agric.za/docs/legal/legalid.htm.

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