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This veterinarian doesn’t think so

Let’s put greater pressure on financial organizations and community pastures to take away the branding requirement

With the mandatory implementation of RFID tags for the National Identification System it seems only a matter of time before branding is phased out. From an animal welfare standpoint it certainly should be removed from the list of procedures performed on cattle. The one thing in its favour was it created an unalterable, permanent method of identification. Take that away and all you are left with are the disadvantages of branding.

Currently the largest number of brands are done with an electric iron, which is more acceptable because the heat is more even. Diligent producers clip the hair. This speeds up branding time, does a better job and prevents the iron from gumming up with burnt hair.

Nevertheless, branding still causes the most vocalization of any processing procedure, including dehorning or castrating. The cattle need to be tightly restrained, preferably in a hydraulic chute, to avoid lots of struggling.

Of all the common procedures branding probably takes the most time, and is the one that many producers relish the least.

With stress and struggling of this magnitude the pain, both instant and prolonged, causes weight loss and raises the potential for injury when an animal is in the chute. Stress accumulates with all the other stresses of processing, transporting and weaning making an animal that much more susceptible to disease.

Added to that, it damages the hide, so its value is reduced. This is especially true with rib brands since branding occurs in the middle of the hide. Some cattle, depending on how many times they’ve been sold, may have several brands in different locations, reducing the hide value to near nothing. This is ultimately a loss to the packer.

At the auction market buyers will discount animals for horns, colour, testicles, short ears or tails and yet cattle with multiple brands are not discounted. This always seemed odd to me because the hide value is greatly diminished at slaughter and multiple brands usually indicates the cattle have been moved around lots.

There has been talk from time to time about the need for pain treatments of animals prior to castrating dehorning and branding. This would help eliminate the pain associated with these procedures. In theory it sounds good, but it just isn’t practical. The cattle would need to be in the chute much longer, increasing the stress on each individual animal. It would also stretch out the time needed to process the rest of the herd since the crew couldn’t get enough done in a day. So processing costs would also increase, for the extra time as well as the lidocaine for freezing.

As careful as producers are, even a good brand over time can become difficult to read. Some are blotched by using too hot an iron, or faded because not enough heat is applied. Hair grows over the mark, which is why brand inspection is mandatory at auction markets in Alberta, Saskatchewan and B. C. These inspectors have a trained eye for reading brands but even they have to catch and clip the occasional animal in order to make out its brand. Some are simply illegible.

There has always been the argument that a permanent brand prevents cattle rustling while tags can be quickly cut out. The trouble with that argument is cattle can be rebranded, and in the event of rustling the animals are often butchered on the spot so the evidence is destroyed with either method of identification.

Now, with mandatory RFID tags, which have a decent retention rate, plus an on-farm identification tag, we have the potential to see a huge shift away from branding. Larger producers and purebred producers have largely eliminated it from their herds already.

Of course, branding isn’t always a matter of choice. It remains mandatory for community pastures where cattle from multiple owners are commingled, or cattle financed through banks, feeder associations and others. However, once the reading of the RFID tags is implemented at auction markets finance organizations should be able to trace back ownership just as quickly to protect their interests. The other mandatory requirement is for exports of feeder cattle to the United States. For short-keep cattle this seems highly unnecessary and in my opinion the number of characters could have at least been reduced to just a rather than the CAN, which was mandated. Right now the Americans demand that we “Humanely burn into the hide a scar that will be permanent and legible.” To quote Dr. Terry Whiting, the Manitoba-based animal welfare expert and veterinarian, “to humanely burn into the hide is an oxymoron.” A lot of other countries in the world use other forms of identification.

I know producers would embrace the modern way to identify cattle if branding could be eliminated. In the meantime only brand when absolutely necessary, and keep brand releases on purchased cattle. Use as small an iron as you can with as few characters as possible.

Let’s put greater pressure on financial organizations and community pastures to take away the branding requirement. We should utilize the national identification system as a viable replacement for branding and eliminate a costly procedure to farmers both economically and from an animal welfare point of view. — Roy Lewis DVM

Dr. Roy Lewis is a large animal veterinarian with a practice in Westlock, Alta.



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