Frozen: The Cattle Freeze Branding Experience

Let’s face it–cattle are not that easy to identify individually. Sure, there’s always a cow or two that stand out, but for the most part they look pretty much alike. If you tried to give them all a unique name you’d just end up being pretty confused by the end of the day.

Calves grazing corn stocks

From left to right, that is Clarice, Donny, Sally, Carl, Max, Hubert, and…oh crap, I forget the rest.

This makes it important for cattle ranchers to have a handy way to uniquely identify each individual animal. One method discussed in an earlier post was to use an ear tag, which is essentially a plastic earring that has numbers and/or letters on it. However, the issue with ear tags is they can be lost, or in the most unfortunate case that cattle are stolen, they can be cut out, leaving the animal with no form of identification.

Because of these problems, a step we took with our cattle is to freeze brand them. Freeze branding is a process where metal irons in the shape of letters, numbers, or symbols are cooled to -112 degrees Fahrenheit and then applied to the skin of a beef animal. This process kills the pigment producing cells in the hair, which then causes the hair to grow back white in the shape of the iron.

The sensation that it causes for the cattle is similar to the sensation that a person feels when they have a wart frozen off. Yes, it’s not comfortable, like sitting in your favorite easy chair, but it’s not a big deal. Unlike ear tags, this procedure leaves a permanent mark that cannot fall out or be cut off.

Freeze branding close up in action

This cow wanted to be number 1, but she ended up as number 88. Sorry 88, you’ll always be #1 in my heart.


This past Saturday we freeze branded the cows in our herd with a number and a registered brand. The registered brand is a series of numbers, letters, and symbols that signify the owner of the livestock. They are registered with the state brand committee in order to make sure no one’s brand can be confused with another ranchers brand. Carolyn and my brand is the Diamond JR, while my folk’s brand is the Diamond RC.

To freeze brand cattle, it is a bit of a process. First, the hair needs to be clipped close to the skin and the loose hair brushed away. The skin is wet with alcohol. Then the irons, which are chilled with either liquid nitrogen or dry ice in alcohol, are applied to the skin. It takes 15 seconds with liquid nitrogen and 60 with the dry ice method. The irons are then removed, leaving an indentation of the brand that quickly goes away.

Diamond RC Brand

It doesn’t stay indented, but if it did we could say our cows are embossed. That would be sweet.

It takes a few weeks before the hair starts to grow white. In all, the branding process takes a several minutes per animal. Because of this, freeze brands are not commonly used on calves that will be sold in the fall, but cows and bulls that will be in the herd for a long time.

Diamond JR Brand on the cow

It may take a lot of effort, but doesn’t that just look sharp when it’s finished?

The numbers used for branding can also signify more than just a random number. For example, our heifers all were branded with a three digit number. The first digit was a “3”, which corresponds with the last number of their birth year, 2013. This way, when you look at her in the pasture in a few years, it is easy to tell how old she is.

We preg checked the cows Saturday while we were freeze branding, and the good news is they were almost all bred. Now that this job is done, we are ready for winter. Well, as ready as we’ll ever be that is.



2 responses to “Frozen: The Cattle Freeze Branding Experience

  1. And now I know what freeze branding is. Is it better than the old hot iron branding? Less painful?

    • Freeze branding is different from hot iron branding in a few ways. A hot iron brand will prevent the hair from growing back all together. It is also visible immediately, unlike the freeze brand which takes weeks. One additional note on freeze branding is that the process is not 100% perfect and there are always a few animals that grow the hair the normal color, making it impossible to see the brand. A hot iron brand works 100% of the time.

      Because of this, it is hard to say which one is better. Although a hot iron brand seems to be more stressful for the animal, it works all of the time, so the animal doesn’t have to undergo the procedure again like a failed freeze brand. However, I find hot iron brands more difficult to read than freeze brands.

      One key with hot iron branding is it is required by state law in many areas. This is because it is so easy for cattle to stray or be rustled in western lands that an easily readable method of identification is necessary to sort one rancher’s cattle from another. Since freeze branding is not a perfect process, states like South Dakota won’t recognize them for identification (Nebraska will). Consider the aftermath of the blizzard that hit West River South Dakota last year–without a brand on the thousands of cattle that were forced away from their home pastures by the storm there would be no way to prove ownership. Instead of handling this through courts, the state requires the brands so all the ranchers have to do is take the cattle that wear their brand.

      Could there be a different way to prove ownership? As of now, not really. Tattoos are small and very hard to read. Microchips or RFID technology requires the reader to be a few inches from the chip, making it impractical for field identification. And ear tags fall out.

      We chose to use freeze branding because it provides a crisp, clear form of identification. Since we are not in an area that has state-mandated branding, we chose only to brand the cattle that will stay in the herd for a long time. What works for us might not work for someone else, but I’m pretty happy with how this system fits our needs.

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