We also used to hang horse thieves and rustlers once upon a time

Vet Advice: The practice of hot-iron branding and concerns for animal welfare

We also used to hang horse thieves and rustlers once upon a time

Expectation and foresight is integral to progress. Indifference to small matters today yields tomorrow’s issues, the need for hot-iron branding among them.

Although progress in the cattle industry is slow, progress is constant — typically a case of hesitancy and caution unnerved by pressure brought to bear by those who buy the food we produce and those who ultimately bring it to the marketplace either as groceries on a store shelf or hamburgers at a drive-through. The catalysts for change often start as outlier issues like antimicrobial resistance, animal welfare, and food safety — the incidental things whipped into first-order importance by the public, then championed by Corporate America.

Animal care has been recast a trump card. The corporate world that markets what comes from grass and grain understands how animal production systems work. When change is needed, change is ordered. Be it the use of antibiotics, hormones, layer cages, or gestation stalls, the public likes what they hear and spends food dollars accordingly. The people most affected are often producers, especially those girdled by tradition, reluctant to change because it’s easier to “just keep doing what we always have.”

The debate around hot-iron branding will surface again as the spring ritual of “branding” unfolds in corrals across Western Canada. The love affair cowboys have with the smell of wood fires, horses and the acrid smoke of hot irons against hide is historical, some say romantic. Many outside ranching simply don’t understand why ranchers burn symbols onto the struggling, bellowing chattels of spring calving grounds. Using hot irons to brand and dehorn (debud) young calves is viewed as derelict and inhumane.

Why we brand

Through history, brands were a proof of title. For about 25 to 30 per cent of cattle producers, branding is still accepted as the most practical way to permanently identify livestock. Old habits die hard!

The western cowboy did not invent hot-iron branding. Scenes of oxen being branded on hieroglyphics are depicted on Egyptian tombs as early as 2700 BC. On the darker side of history, hot-iron branding became a right of passage from freedom to enslavement during Roman times, a practice perpetuated by the slave trade until the late 19th century.

The Spanish are credited with bringing the first branding irons to the Americas in 1541. Branding became common in the U.S. after the Civil War. Eventually, in Canada, the second session of the Northwest Territories government on August 1, 1878 established a law requiring all livestock to be branded.

Unfortunately, there has always been the unscrupulous who steal or “rustle” livestock. Approximately 600 cattle and 100 horses are reported stolen every year in Alberta.

Today’s thieves are sophisticated compared to the horseback bandits of the Old West: they pull livestock trailers, work at night and know how to coax animals inside; then a quick trip across provincial boundaries to sell animals at auction barns or processing plants. Provinces with no brand inspection system are favoured destinations. Modern rustlers are slick, and they’re bold.

Welfare concerns

In 2011, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) published a literature review examining welfare concerns associated with hot-iron branding. Their conclusion: hot-iron branding is painful.

Aside from our obligation to animals, there is a responsibility to address welfare concerns of the public.

The current codes of practice were an important step. Written to ensure everyone in the industry understands that we must meet the basic physiological and behavioural needs of livestock. Controversy arises when the non-agricultural community’s views differ from those of producers. Industry self-regulation is of paramount importance.

The National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) of Canada in developing the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Farm Animals: Beef Cattle addresses hot-iron branding in a rather oblique manner. The code recognizes that permanent identification, as legal proof of ownership, is essential. The code also encourages development of “least painful” means of identification. In its present form, the code recognizes that under some circumstances, hot-iron or freeze branding are necessary and when required it be done quickly, expertly, and in accordance with accepted standards. The code goes on to suggest in consideration of animal welfare, cattle should not be rebranded — particularly as bills of sale or record of ownership. Governments and industry are encouraged to eliminate any current regulations requiring rebranding. Wattling, ear splitting, and other unnecessary surgical alterations of cattle for identification or cosmetic purposes are strongly discouraged.

Consequences for our industry through inattention to animal welfare are wide ranging, including future preservation and expansion of export markets. As an example, perspectives related to animal welfare between Europe and North America differ significantly. Hot-iron branding is banned in Europe. Unfortunately, in North America hot-iron branding is not only promoted, but necessary as a part of disease control programs and import (U.S. state regulations), a part of normal business practices in many custom feedlots, and a requirement by lending institutions.

Suspension of hot-iron branding cannot be argued from a production perspective because no differences have been observed in average daily gains or morbidity rates between branded and unbranded calves, the only exception being in very young calves that are castrated, debudded, and branded at the same time.

It’s difficult to predict what pressure will be applied to stop hot-iron branding. Many predict the tradition and romantic slur associated with the practice will fade as better forms of permanent and individual ID become affordable. Things like DNA fingerprinting and retinal imaging whereby every animal can be positively identified at birth is just around the corner.

Hopefully the tacit memory of cattle rustlers, horse thieves and hot-iron branding will be relegated to grist for pens of western historians.

About the author


Dr. Ron Clarke

Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent to Canadian Cattlemen ([email protected]) or WCABP ([email protected]).



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