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Drop that branding iron

Prime Cuts with Steve Kay

Farmers Branding Spring Calves

Hide branding goes back to the very start of the North American cattle industry. Cattle rustling was common for a long time and branding was the only way an owner could identify his stolen cattle. Even then, cowboys or their owners died in gun battles while defending or trying to retrieve their animals.

All that is in the past but branding persists. As recently as 2011, 45 per cent of all fed steers and heifers in the U.S. had at least one brand on them. While branding is not directly an animal health issue, it does put some stress on a young animal. More importantly, it reduces the value of a hide for beef processors and producers.

It’s great news then to learn that branding in the U.S. has declined sharply in the past five years. Nearly three quarters (74.5 per cent) of all harvested steers and heifers in 2016 had no brand, says the industry’s latest Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) report. The report also revealed that significant progress has been made regarding brand location on cattle hides, and branding of all types has declined considerably. Canadian cattle producers, however, likely remain well ahead of their U.S. counterparts in replacing branding with other forms of identification and producing a high quality hide for export.

The U.S. Hide, Skin and Leather Association (USHSLA) applauded the report, which it said highlighted continued improvements in cattle hide quality in recent years. Butt brands continued to be the most prominent branding location, according to the report. While the leather industry prefers no branding marks, says USHSLA, butt brands, those located near the tail of the animal, are considered the best location. That’s because the branding scar is easy to remove during the leather tanning process and will not significantly have an impact on the overall value of the tanned hide.

Furthermore, the number of U.S. cattle with multiple brands fell from 9.9 per cent in 2011 to 1.6 per cent in 2016. Likewise, the amount of hides with brands located on the side, shoulder or rib cage area of the animal, decreased from nearly 14 per cent in 1991 to six per cent in 2016. Side brands often pose challenges to leather tanners, as their location reduces the available portion of the hide that can be used to produce leather, says USHSLA.

The difference in brand locations affects the overall economic value of an animal, notes USHSLA. No brands on the hide will garner the highest price per head, while on average, butt brands are US$1-2 per piece lower, and side-branded hides can be US$10-12 lower. The BQA report captures the lost value of branding practices by the U.S. cattle industry, estimating that producers lost nearly US$1 per head in 2016 as a result of branding practices. But due to increased awareness by cattle producers, the value lost has shrunk from US$2.43 per head since the first BQA report in 1991, says USHSLA.

That’s still a loss of about US$26 million on the number of steers and heifers expected to be harvested this year. But it’s well down from the US$63 million lost in 1991.

The BQA reports’ positive findings are a testament to the U.S. cattle industry’s concerted efforts to improve producer value and returns to all sectors of the beef industry, says USHSLA president Stephen Sothmann. U.S. cattle hides are used around the world to produce leather for footwear, automobiles, luxury handbags and home furnishings. The industry exports 95 per cent of all its hides for a total value of over US$2 billion. This shows that hide quality matters.

About the author


A North American view of the meat industry. Steve Kay is publisher and editor of Cattle Buyers Weekly.

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