Freeze branding versus hot iron branding

The proper identification of animals in a herd creates a variety of benefits for producers. One of the primary advantages to permanent identification of an animal is proof of ownership. 

Some producers implement branding, either freeze or hot iron, as an identification system for their herds. 

The primary reason producers brand their animals is to deter theft. “We have had some pretty clever people who love to steal cattle almost right under the owner’s nose,” Eldon Cole, University of Missouri Extension, livestock field specialist, stated. “Most of the time a professional thief won’t steal a well-branded calf or animal of any age. We like to say, the brand is the animal’s return address.” 

There are pros and cons to freeze branding and hot iron branding. One of the downsides to branding is can be time consuming. Livestock specialists say this is especially the case with freeze branding.

Additionally, both types of branding are painful to the animal. “Brands do cause some pain, which as humane folks we don’t like and the cattle can recall that bad experience, which will be reflected the next time you run them down the chute for a procedure,” Cole added. 

Producers who implement freeze branding use branding irons that have been chilled with a refrigerant, typically dry ice. When the chilled branding irons are placed on a calf’s hide the pigment-producing cells are destroyed or altered. The result is the animal’s hair grows back white. 

Freeze branding works better on dark-haired animals. “Freeze brands do not work well on really light-colored animals, so some will keep the brand on longer so they serve just like a hot iron brand,” Cole said. 

In addition, sometimes a freeze brand can “blemish a hide” and make the animal less valuable. “Hide damage is a concern, especially if you fire rib brand cattle early in their life, say at 3 months, which is fairly common,” Cole added.

Experts recommend producers be meticulous in the execution of branding animals. Livestock specialists state taking time and following each step of branding carefully will result in a brand that will last an animal’s lifetime. 

There are several upsides to branding other than deterring theft. First, branding can be less expensive compared to regular ear tags or Radio Frequency Identification Technology (RFID) tags. A cow may go through several ear tags in her lifetime which can add up over time.

Cattle producers also utilize branding as a method to track herd performance. “Historically, the point of branding was to keep track of animals’ ownership when they are commingled for grazing,” Cole stated. “Today, that may also apply as buyers of feeder cattle do more performance, carcass and health issues evaluation when there’s a legible brand right there in front of them.”


• Herd brands must be registered with the state.

• Brands may be placed on either the right or left, hip, rib or shoulder.

• Two operations may have an identical brand but not in the same location on the animal.

• A brand must have two or more characters and be three inches or taller.

• Don’t brand cattle that are wet, it will result in a blurry, unreadable brand.  

• Be careful when using pour-on insecticides with hot irons as flames can occur.  

• The brand should resemble a nice saddle-tan appearance when done properly. 

• Livestock specialists state that the brand, either fire or freeze, should serve as a trademark of a reputable operation that does things right all the way through the production cycle, right down to the brand.

• Experts state markets and locker plants are supposed to keep track of any branded animals that come through their businesses.


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