SIMPSON — To brand or not to brand? In some Midwestern states, that question has largely been answered in the negative.

While cattle branding still takes place in Illinois, many producers have eschewed the practice and rely primarily on ear tags and tattooing. Even fewer utilize the relatively new practice of freeze branding.

University of Illinois livestock educator Teresa Steckler doesn’t see much conventional hot-iron branding, let alone freeze branding. That’s largely because the beef cattle industry is much different in Illinois than in large cattle-producing states such as Texas and Kansas.

Proving ownership is one reason livestock producers brand their cattle.

But rustling simply isn’t an issue in many parts of the Midwest as it is in other regions of the country.

“The importance of having a freeze brand is if your cattle get stolen. You can always take an ear tag out and replace it,” Steckler said.

“… We don’t see the cattle theft in Illinois like ranches out West. There was a classic case in eastern Oklahoma where a rancher didn’t check on his cattle for two weeks, and he had 30 head stolen. But because the cattle went over to Kansas to a barn he had sold to, they were familiar with his brand and called him up. They were actually able to trace where those cattle went.”

Wes Chapple, the beef research manager at the Orr Research Center in Perry, also doesn’t see much branding.

“Branding has become less popular in Illinois,” he said. “The average herd size is much smaller than those of the Western states. The branding that is done is not so much for identification or to determine ownership of the animal. Ear tags are so much easier than using freeze branding or hot-iron branding.”

The Orr Center is one place where freeze branding is a common practice.

Freeze branding acts differently than hot-iron branding. Instead of killing hair follicles, it kills cells that produce pigment, thereby turning the hair white.

That makes identifying cattle from a distance a bit easier, a benefit especially at research centers such as the ones in Perry, Urbana and the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center near Simpson.

“Part of the reason we went to freeze branding is because with numbers at 3.5 to 4 inches tall, it’s easier to tell an animal’s ID from a distance,” Chapple said. “That mark where it was will turn out white; it will stand out more.”

Freeze branding is more expensive and more difficult than hot-iron branding. Producers at the Orr Center use dry ice and methanol.

That is a more practical alternative for them than liquid nitrogen.

Brands are placed in a large cooler filled with the ingredients and kept there until the temperature reaches about minus 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

One advantage of freeze branding over hot iron branding is the condition of the entire hide. In some places, freeze-branded cattle may draw higher prices than hot iron-branded cattle because that part of the hide is not damaged, making easier handling in leather production.

Nat Williams writes for Illinois Farmer Today, a Lee Enterprises sister publication of The Southern.

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