When I started writing these blogs, I had every intention of posting one every month, but life happened and the blogs didn’t… Blogs won’t be monthly, but let’s hope they are more regular then they have been!
With calving season upon us, days are spent doing a lot of record keeping, tagging, and tattooing around here! Since it seems fitting for this time of year and with brandings just around the corner, I wanted to discuss animal welfare when it comes to livestock identification and different types of identification that livestock producers utilize.
Let me start by emphasizing HOW important record keeping is to any business. Any business owner understands this importance. Whether it’s a small restaurant or a large retail store, records such as receipts, cash register tapes, deposits, invoices, bank statements, accounts payable and receivable, payroll records, tax filings, tax returns, W2 and 1099 forms, and other documentation is kept and utilized to study and make future changes which affect profit margins of the business. Livestock production is no exception. In addition to all the financial records, livestock identification is used to aid in trade, public health, production, theft, prevention, traceability, disease control and much more. Identifying each animal individually allows producers to keep specific records on each animal such as birth weight, birth date, health, vaccination, medication history, and breed parentage. It is also important when identifying ownership of certain animals, tracing it all the way back to the place of origin. Most livestock animals are assigned a number or a letter/number combination at birth. This makes them easily tracked throughout their life. Just like humans with a social security number!
There are many different forms of identification ranchers and farmers use on their livestock. I will break down and explain the forms of identification we use here at Mahlstedt Ranch.
Ear Tags- Using ear tags is probably the most common form of identification used on livestock. There are many different types, styles, colors, and sizes available for purchase and they are very easy to use. A special permanent marker is typically used making them easily customizable, but there is also the option to buy them with the number sequence laser printed on the tag or to use a Dremel engraving tool. These tags are weather resistant and hold up well for many, many years. These tags are pierced through the ear of an animal using an applicator. Typically tags are applied between the 2nd and 3rd cartilage rib of the ear.
Pedigrees- Pedigree is a fancy name for a family tree! Using pedigrees is a way for animal owners to track the bloodlines of their animals. This is an extremely important tool so that when producers are purchasing seedstock or making a breeding plan, they can choose bloodlines that are of the highest quality and make sure there is no in-breeding occurring, keeping the genetic pool healthy.
Hot iron branding– Hot iron branding has been a common practice since the ancient times. Even in an age of electronic registries and plastic tags, it is still essential to brand your livestock for an added security. Most branding irons are heated in a special stove using propane for a source of heat, but a fire from dry wood can also be used. There is also an electric branding iron that many ranchers are using. To hot iron brand correctly, it is important that the iron is at an optimal temperature. An iron that is too cold will just singe the hair and disappear in a matter of time. If the iron is too hot, it will be glowing red and will cost the animal unneeded pain and raise the risk of ruining the brand. An ideal temperature is where you heat the iron until it becomes an ashy gray. An iron that is heated to the perfect temperature will take only 3-5 seconds to apply a quality brand on an animal with a dry, light hair cover. Branding is a quick process that is accomplished by pressing the iron firmly and rocking the handle slightly to apply the character evenly. Rocking the handle helps to apply the brand evenly. After the hot brand is removed, the hide should be a buckskin color. The animals are carefully restrained to assure that the brand is applied quickly and safely. A brand is bought and owned by individuals or ranches and registered through the state. A specific brand can only be applied to the location in which it is registered. For example, our brand, bar over MT, is registered in Montana to use on the left hip on horses and right rib on cattle, so it would be illegal for us to place the bar over MT brand on a calf’s left shoulder. We would unintentionally be giving that animal to the random owner of the brand bar over MT on the left shoulder! When you are driving on the highway and see some cows out, by calling the local sheriffs office and telling them what brand is on the cattle, they can locate the owner and quickly remove the danger from the road. A brand can also be used to track down lost or stolen animals.
Freeze branding– Freeze branding acts differently than hot-iron branding, but is still a form of permanent identification. Instead of killing hair follicles like a hot iron brand, it kills cells that produce pigment, thereby turning the hair white. Freeze branding is more costly that hot-iron branding. While you can freeze brand your “brand” on the animal, many ranchers use this tool to freeze brand the animal’s individual identification number for easier identification from afar. Unlike hot iron branding, these irons are specially made from copper, copper alloy (brass), or bronze. The branding iron is chilled in liquid nitrogen or a dry ice and alcohol mix. The animal is carefully restrained and then the hair is clipped as close to the skin as possible and cleaned using a brush and rubbing alcohol. The chilled brands are then applied to the animal’s hide for a certain period of time. The time depends on the ingredients used, but anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute. The branding iron kills the color pigment producing cells in the hair follicles, but does not kill the hair growth follicles.
Tattoo- Yes, animals can be tattooed! This is another form of permanent identification to keep track of an animals individual identification number. Cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs are typically tattooed in the first rib of the ear so it does not interfere with an ear tag. Sheep are often tattooed in the inside of their flank and horses on the inside surface of their top lip. An ink is applied on the tattoo site (usually in the animal’s ear) after the site was cleaned with alcohol. The tattoo instrument uses digits that are made up of sharp, needle like projections that secure to the instrument. The applicator instrument is then squeezed by the person applying the tattoo to pierce into the skin. An additional ink is then rubbed into the punctures. Once healed, the tattoo will be permanently visible.
There are many other forms of identification used in livestock such as ear notching in hogs, nose printing for cattle and sheep, micro-chipping for horses and other livestock, neck chains for dairy cattle, EID/electronic tags used for cattle and other livestock in a confinement setting, and horn brands on cattle. All forms of identification have their place to help keep our consumers safe, maintain quality animals, and to keep our livestock healthy and safe. The welfare of our animals is every rancher’s priority and identifying our animals is just one way we do that. If you have questions on the ethicalness or the processes used to identify livestock, please reach out to us or a local rancher in your area.
Proverbs 27:23-24 ~ Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds; for riches do not endure forever, and a crown is not secure for all generations.
Written by Tienna Canen
Photo credit: Tana Canen and Tienna Canen