EDMONTON — Tied up in history and tradition, branding livestock is practically as old as ranching itself. But, it hurts the animal, there’s no doubt about that, and an Alberta veterinarian is questioning whether or not modern technology might mean that many ranchers can phase out the practice.
Branding is not exceedingly common in Canada. In Alberta, roughly half of all calves in the province in any given year are branded, estimates Livestock Identification Services Ltd. But it’s only really a practice in the three westernmost provinces, the only places where there are registries and inspections. Roy Lewis, a Calgary veterinarian who worked with cattle for three decades and recently wrote a column in an agriculture newspaper questioning the utility of branding, estimates the national rate at closer to 10 per cent.
He argues — or at least raises the possibility — that technology such as ear tags with GPS and microchips can do the job of tracking and identification cattle that, since the time of the Egyptians, branding has fulfilled.
“Lots has changed from the days of the wide-open range where cattle were mixed and the brand was the only proof of ownership,” writes Lewis in an article in the Alberta Farmer Express newspaper.
Still, many ranchers stand by the usefulness of branding; there are 54,463 lifetime brands registered in Alberta, said Shawn McLean, the general manager of Livestock Identification Services Ltd., which registers and tracks brands in Alberta.
If I brand something I don’t own I’m breaking the law. So it’s proof of ownership unless there’s better proof
“It’s still a … proof of ownership,” McLean said. “If I brand something I don’t own I’m breaking the law. So it’s proof of ownership unless there’s better proof.”
In 2018, his organization dealt with more than 500 stray head of cattle and 150 stray horses in Alberta. Not all were branded, but some were. “A brand helps us find the right owner,” said McLean. “It’s still a common practice, I’m not saying everybody must brand, but it’s another tool at their disposal.”
Lewis agreed in an interview with the Post that there are times when they work well, such as if the cattle are roaming in mountains or places where they could be easily found by someone else.
“I’m not arguing with them in that regard, no, I would agree, the permanent ID thing is, for the honest person, is still there, it’s going to be on the hide, it’s going to be on the hide when that animal dies, and that’s a valid argument on a lifelong basis,” Lewis said. “The bull calf that becomes a steer calf that you’re gonna sell in a few months, well, does he need a brand?”
And there are further issues, said Lewis. Cattle can be branded repeatedly as they change owners or are exported. And some financial organizations that finance cattle insist upon branding as proof of ownership, which Lewis believes should change. “No wonder hides soon have no value as they are pockmarked with brands,” he writes.
This isn’t about telling producers what to do, he said, but rather to prod ranchers to think about whether or not they really do need to be branding, given the pain it inflicts and the work that goes into branding day, a significant community and cultural event on the prairies.
“The scar tissue that makes a good brand visible may not be too eye-appealing to some folks, but woven in with those old brands are more ranch history and rangeland stories than most people realize,” says Livestock Identification Services Ltd.’s website. “In many cases, over a period of more than a hundred years, numerous old ranch brands have become better known than the people who owned them.”
Throughout history, however, not all ranchers branded their cattle. Samuel Maverick — who, according to the late New York Times columnist William Safire, gave his last name to the now widely used term — refused to brand his cattle, since he didn’t want to hurt them. (Maverick’s neighbours, Safire notes, said he didn’t brand in order to be able to abduct any unbranded cattle he came across).
Of course, no identification systems — except for DNA testing — are foolproof. A determined cattle thief can clip off an ear tag. A brand can be altered. And microchips pose a slight complication once the animal is slaughtered, since you don’t want bits of metal entering the food system.
Even though some producers do what they can to minimize the pain, including using painkillers and working as fast as possible, there’s no doubt that branding hurts.
Yet branding today is done in roughly the same way it always has. A brand is heated, by blowtorch or fire (there are electric versions, too). The calf is wrestled down and held, its legs tied and head secured, and the brand is applied for three to five seconds — any less, and it will fade, any more and it can cause wounds that heal slowly. Obviously, this hurts, and research on vocalizations from cattle during branding has proven it (if, for some reason, someone doubted it).
Alternately, a rancher might use freeze branding, where the brand is cooled in liquid nitrogen, the calf shaved and swabbed with oil, and then the skin is frozen for 15 to 45 seconds. The hair will then re-grow white, marking the animal with the ranch’s brand.
Lewis said he hopes his article pushes the conversation toward further discussions about pain management and mitigation, something McLean said many ranchers already do. Because it’s time consuming, it’s tricky to numb the area for branding, said Lewis, compared to castration or de-horning, where the area can be frozen with local anesthetic.
But, just as you can’t prevent the pain of a banged shin, you can pop an Advil to feel better in a few hours. Such measures, Lewis said, can help mitigate the pain from branding.
“The producer is always concerned about that because an animal distressed is not happy, is not performing, it’s not the best thing for an animal, so they do their best to alleviate the stress and … they use a lot of pain medication before and after they brand,” said McLean.
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