The branding of animals has been hotly debated as it’s seen as animal cruelty by many groups. Branding was seen as mainstream and has been seen in movies, tv shows, and sometimes in real life.
History of Branding
Back in the day, often pictured in the Wild West, cattle were branded as they were often mixed with other herds. Branding was a way to tell one farmer's cattle from another, similar to brand ownership. Branding can be seen dating back to 2700 in Egypt where hieroglyphics depict oxen being branded for protective purposes. It’s been said that in Spain, where large quantities of cattle were held, the farmers branded the cattle to show which ox belonged to the other, and this mindset was brought to the United States as well. A hot iron with a symbol was heated and usually pressed on the left hip of the animal. Ideally, this would deter cattle rustlers, though they were often able to outwit farmers.
At the present time, branding is still largely used, though the methods of branding differ. Sometimes, farmers will separate calves from their mothers and then brand the animal with hot metal. That being said, there are more modern ways to brand cattle and bison. New ways to brand animals include freeze branding, ear notching, ear tagging, and tattooing.
Types of Branding
An iron with a symbol is heated and pressed against the animal. The brand leaves a permanent scar in the shape of the brand and causes hair loss in that area. This type of branding can be very painful to the animal and causes inflammation and lasting effects for around 8 weeks.
In freeze branding, a very cold iron, often soaked in liquid nitrogen or dry ice, is pressed against the animal. The branding causes almost no permanent harm to the skin and is less painful than the hot-iron branding. The color of the hair on the animal turns white and kills the hair’s color. Freeze branding is less commonly used because it is more expensive than hot-iron branding. Freeze branding requires everything to be kept cold to avoid evaporation. Because the branding turns cattle hair white, it’s not typically used on lighter-colored animals. Freeze branding is reported to hurt the animals for about 15 - 30 minutes post-procedure.
Ear notching is traditional in swine and sometimes cattle and typically identifies their birth order or litter. An ear notch means adding a v or u-shaped hole on the rim of an animal’s ear using a special pair of pliers. According to AVMA, ear notching can be painful to the animal short-term and labor-intensive as it may require assistance to hold the animal still during the process.
An ear tag is a small, plastic, or metal piece that is pierced into the ear of an animal. At JJ Bison, we use these tags to distinguish one bison from another. Ear tags are permanent and can be cut out with no pain to the animal itself. Additionally, when done correctly, the animal only feels a pinch of pressure to its ear when it’s put in as a baby. We use ear tags at JJ Bison because they are as painless as possible while helping us identify the animal in case there’s any need for them to go to a doctor or something similar.
Tattooing is a permanent means of identification for animals, either pets or farm animals. The animal is typically shaved, then letters or numbers are notated on the animal. The ink in the tattoo does not impact the blood or tissues of the animals but can be hard to find if they aren’t in an easily located area.
Are Bison Branded?
Bison are not typically branded in 2021. In 1995, the USDA sought to end jaw branding to bison and cattle to avoid unnecessary pain to the animal. In 2015, branding was deemed no longer necessary for bison heading from Canada to the United States but did still require quarantine and health certificates. Overall, the general consensus is that bison are not widely branded from our research. Depending on the act of branding, it would require the farmer to shave the bison, and there’s just too much fur that grows to see branding as a viable option. JJ Bison does use ear tags as they are harmless and help us keep an eye on our herd. We do not brand our animals and have no plans to do so.
The FDA does brand carcasses of slaughtered bison, but the act of bringing bison to an FDA certified butcher is voluntary in Maryland. We bring our bison to an FDA certified butcher, and so an FDA stamp is “branded” onto each carcass, not the animal itself. The internal organs are inspected for signs of disease, and a “U.S. Inspected and Passed” seal ensures the bison meets the expectations of the FDA. As far as your traditional view of branding goes, this is the extent that JJ Bison’s herd is branded.