Strike while the branding iron is hot: Tips for branding livestock |

Strike while the branding iron is hot: Tips for branding livestock

A hot brand is proof of ownership, and stockmen want their brands to look good on the animal. Creating a nice-looking brand involves proper technique, and a good branding iron.


Gary Cammack, owner of Cammack Ranch Supply, Union Center, South Dakota, sells two styles of hot irons.

“One is electric. These custom-made heating elements are formed to the shape of the brand and can be any size the customer wants, from 2 inches on up. Electric irons are nice because you can heat them quickly to brand 1 or 2 animals or a handful of replacement heifers, when you don’t want to fire up a propane heater. You can simply plug in the electric branding iron and it is hot enough in 3 to 5 minutes,” he said.

They sell two element sizes — three-sixteenths of an inch and three-eighths of an inch. Cammack said ranchers mostly use the bigger size because it holds more heat. For calves or horses, with thinner skin, the smaller element is often preferred.

“Use a smaller iron when branding calves. The brand grows with the animal.”

“My wife and I have had this ranch supply business since 1979 but we also have a cattle ranch so we have an active laboratory to test all our products. We’ve found that on branding day it’s nice to have an electric iron plugged in and hot, even though we’re using fire-heated irons. Then if our calf-catching crew are faster than what we can keep up with—keeping irons hot in the propane brand heater—we can use the electric iron, as a fill-in,” Cammack said. “The other irons we sell are stainless steel. We custom-make a lot of these, and ship them all over the country. The reason we use stainless steel is that mild steel tends to corrode. A propane fire, or any kind of fire, causes them to build up a residue of rust, which acts as insulation and keeps them from heating up as quickly. Propane fire, especially, will eventually cause the iron to be consumed. If you look at old branding irons, they may have flaked off enough to get sharp. Then they might burn clear through the hide because they’ve become too thin.”

Horse irons traditionally are thinner metal and a smaller brand — because no one wants a big ugly brand on their horse — and have a shorter handle. Horses tend to be more reactive and you don’t want that long-handled iron to bounce back and hit you if the horse jumps.

The newer irons are designed with vented corners wherever the figures or letters come together, so the face is not continuous. That leaves an opening so it won’t blotch. Many of the old irons didn’t have this feature and would blotch and leave a big scar.

“We also make sure the face of the brand is really flat, and round the edges of the metal so it’s not a squared surface. This helps create a nice, clean brand,” Cammack said.


Lynn Thomas, who has been ranching near Baker, Idaho for 49 years, always clips cattle for hot iron branding, especially if they have winter hair.

“Even baby calves, if they are born in January (to) March, have long hair compared to a summer-born calf. If the area is clipped, your iron doesn’t have to burn through all that hair. Burning down through hair takes longer, burns hotter and deeper and is painful longer and takes longer to heal,” Thomas said.

Make sure the iron is hot enough, he suggests.

“Then you only have to touch it briefly to the hide as you apply a bit of pressure. Make sure the animal is adequately restrained so it doesn’t move,” he said.

If using a fire, make sure it keeps burning hot enough.

“Leave the irons in the fire or propane heater long enough to have a slight cherry red glow,” Thomas said. “If it’s an electric iron, make sure cords are adequate, and not too long or you’ll lose some power and the brand won’t get as hot as it should. It will take longer to heat up or reheat. Larger brands with more figures take longer to heat than a small simple brand. Hold the iron on until the brand is golden brown like shoe leather and no longer. Don’t over-brand the animal or it will burn clear through the hide. If it’s a horse, just barely touch the hide with a very hot iron. It’s done almost before the horse knows it, and the brief touch is also adequate to make a nice brand. If you leave it too long or apply too much pressure it will burn too deep and make a scar instead of a brand. Use a smaller iron when branding calves. The brand grows with the animal.”


In some areas freeze branding is popular for identifying individual animals but is not a legal method of identification.

A cold iron is applied to the skin, and if it’s done correctly, the hair grows back white, making a permanent, easy-to-read identifying mark.

There are two main methods cooling the irons.

“One is dry ice and methanol (methyl alcohol) and the other is liquid nitrogen (the coldest),” Cammack said. “You have to know what you are doing. Liquid nitrogen is so cold that if you apply it too long, it ‘burns’ the tissue and turns into a ‘hot’ brand. Instead of just damaging hair follicles so the hair grows white, it kills them and damages the skin, creating the appearance of a hot brand.”

Dr. James England of the University of Idaho, said the two key factors for a successful freeze brand are clipping the area very close to the skin and pre-wetting the skin with alcohol.

“This helps it conduct cold better,” he said.

The area should be brushed clean, clipped and then brushed again to make sure there is no loose hair or skin scurf to interfere with the iron getting right next to the hide. Then apply alcohol to completely wet the shaved skin, and immediately place the branding iron on the wet area.

“When we freeze brand replacement heifers and have a lot of them to do, it’s nice to have a two-stage squeeze chute system,” Cammack said. “In the first one, we use a blow-dryer or an air compressor with an air nozzle on it, to blow dirt out of the hair in the area we want the brand, before we clip the hair. The clippers will stay sharp longer if they don’t have to cut through dirt and dust in the hair. We like to clip and then go over the area again with surgical clippers for a closer shave.”

After it’s clipped, the area is washed with the alcohol.

“Then we put the heifer into the next chute, where the guys are applying the brand. They have another bottle of methanol and wet it down again, just prior to applying the freeze brand,” he said. “When using dry ice, we usually apply the brand for 60 seconds with about 40 pounds pressure on it. If you were to set the freeze brander on a scale and push on it, you’d push until it registered 30 to 40 pounds. This gives the best results.”

England prefers liquid nitrogen rather than a mix of alcohol and dry ice, because he feels you can get the irons colder and make a better brand. “A brass branding iron works about the best because it conducts cold the best,” he said. The iron doesn’t need to be left on the skin as long as when using dry ice and alcohol.

Irons should be placed in a small Styrofoam container, set inside a more durable container. Fluid should be deep enough for the irons to be completely submerged. It takes a few minutes for them to chill enough.

“If they are not already cold when you put them in, it makes the liquid nitrogen bubble (boil). They are ready to use again when the fluid stops bubbling,” England said.“If you are branding a newborn calf with thin skin, leave the iron on for only 20 seconds. If a calf is older than about a week of age, you’ll have to leave it on for 30 to 40 seconds. I usually don’t leave it more than 40 seconds, even on an older animal. With a close clip and alcohol to pre-wet the skin, you don’t need to leave it on any longer.”

Use a timer or a watch with a second hand to make sure you apply the irons long enough and no longer than necessary.

For young horses, six to 12 seconds is adequate. For adult horses, the brand should be pressed against the skin for eight to 12 seconds. Calves have thicker hide than a horse and adult cattle have the thickest, so it takes 30 to 40 seconds for mature cattle.

“Begin timing when the iron first touches the hide, and apply enough pressure for good contact with the entire surface of the iron,” England said.

When you remove the iron from the hide, there will be a frozen indentation. This quickly disappears and the branded tissue may swell for a few days. After that, the brand may not be easy to see until new hair grows in.

“Within 20 to 30 days there may be a little scab when the frozen skin flakes and scales off. But there’s not a raw area, like peeling of a hot brand,” he said.

The length of time it takes for the white hair to grow will depend on the time of year the animal was branded.

“You get best results if you brand when the hair is actively growing, such as spring (growing summer hair) or fall (growing winter hair),” Cammack said. ❖

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