Reducing stress at branding time

Farm Forum

Branding of livestock has served as an important method of permanent identification for thousands of years. Use of brands as identification is important to be able to determine ownership of an animal in public grazing land situations, on large acreages where cattle may be lost or mixed with other herds, and ranches that have cattle owned by more than one person. Branding also provides an opportunity to conduct other herd and health management practices, including vaccinations, castration, dehorning, body condition scoring of cows, etc. Despite the necessity of branding and its associated benefits, it can be a stressful event for livestock and producers alike. Animal health and well-being may become compromised in cases of acute stress response. It is worthwhile to consider making changes to the branding routine to help reduce stress and minimize the impact of this event in the herd.

Ideally, castration, dehorning, and branding should occur prior to three months of age but needs to be completed at least three weeks before calves are weaned. Younger calves recover more quickly with fewer complications and are easier to handle. In larger herds, it works well to break cattle into small groups at branding time. If possible, use portable panels out in the pastures to minimize the stress of gathering and moving allowing cattle to stay in familiar surroundings. Pens should be relatively small, but not so small that crowding becomes problematic.

Both hot-iron and freeze branding techniques are capable of causing pain, as indicated by behavior responses (tail flicks, kicks, vocalization, etc.), heart rate increase, and cortisol responses in several studies; however, the pain is typically acute. Handling procedures during branding are important to help minimize stress. There are several methods used to administer brands and vaccinations, including calf tables, roping and wrestling, and Nord forks. If using a calf table, it is important to have the facilities set up correctly to ease animal movement and safety. Avoid crowing the alley, and make sure that the table allows easy and safe access to the calf. Although roping does not appear to be a low stress handling technique, it can actually be less stressful than other methods if done correctly by a skilled roper. The distance between the pen and the branding site should be minimized, and calves should always be drug out by both heels. It also helps to allow calves immediate access to their mothers following branding.

There are several techniques utilized for castration, including banding using rubber rings, the open surgical technique frequently performed at branding, and the Burdizzo method that involves a plier-like clamp. Calves castrated surgically initially exhibit more stress than banded calves, but both groups resume normal behavior soon after the operation is completed. Some studies have found that banding causes chronic pain that may persist for several weeks. Some studies have indicated that analgesics, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), can reduce chronic pain following castration, although treatment may be difficult when cattle are on pasture. Since some of the common NSAIDs are available only through a veterinary prescription, producers should consult with their veterinarians to determine which, if any, treatment is appropriate for a given situation. In addition, it is important to consider the healing time associated with each method and the experience level of the branding crew when deciding which method to use.

Horns are removed to increase handling safety, reduce injuries and bruising, and increase feedlot performance. Horns may be removed prior to two months of age by “disbudding” or removing the horn-producing cells. If horns are already attached to the skull, the procedure is referred to as dehorning. Dehorning methods include heat cauterization, liquid or paste, and mechanical dehorning. Injecting a local anesthetic before dehorning and providing NSAIDs for long-term pain can help reduce the stress response. Again, a veterinarian should be consulted for specific recommendations. Dehorning through genetic selection by using polled bulls should be considered as a long-term solution for the problems associated with horned cattle.

Reducing pain and stress in calves at branding are important considerations for producers. It is a good idea to think about methods currently being used at branding time and decide if there are alternatives that could work well for their herd. As the late, great Bud Williams used to say, “If you’re working livestock and you’re working hard, you’re doing it wrong.”

For more information, contact SDSU Extension Research Associate Janna Kincheloe at the West River Ag Center at (605) 394-2236 or contact any SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist or Beef Extension Specialist.