Freeze Branding

By Evan Rayl

In every state west of Iowa, branding is an annual ritual that takes place on virtually every ranch in the spring just before the bulls are put out to pasture. In Iowa, just 4000 brands are registered and worse yet, most are not used, resulting in a haven for cattle thieves. Recently, a farmer was arrested in Southern Iowa, who has admitted to many thefts in the area spread over the past ten years. If you protect your cattle by freeze branding, you greatly reduce the chances of being a victim. Thieves will look for an easier mark.

Since July 1, 1995, freeze brands have been a legal brand in Iowa. Not only are these brands proof of ownership in a court of law, but livestock auctions and other cattle buyers will check ownership carefully if freeze branded cattle are presented to them for sale. Also, if you have cattle get out everyone in the neighborhood will know where they belong. My neighbors all know who to call if they see a cow with a freeze brand out. In addition, if you also put number brands on, each animal is easily identified for production testing purposes. I only replace lost ear tags when cattle go thru the chute for routine veterinary work.

The big advantage of freeze branding is the brand is readable year round on black or red cattle. Good brands are easily seen from quite a distance and readable from over 50 feet. Farmers with white cattle have no choice but to hot brand, since freeze branding kills the pigment in the hair, turning it white. I dislike hot brands a lot because I can’t stand the smell and hate the pain to the cattle, plus the hide is discounted after slaughter. The only disadvantage to freeze branding is the amount of time it takes. Try as we may, it takes at least ten minutes for two of us to place my brand and three numbers on each animal. But at the same, to hurry too much is a mistake, since the brands are likely to turn out bad. On the other hand, we placed over 400 brands and numbers last year and they all are very readable, but we follow the procedure below as closely as possible. Forty head in a day is the most we’ve ever done.

If you have a registered brand, all you need is freeze branding equipment. If you do not, the place to start is by getting your own registered brand. If you live in Iowa, contact Karen Gideon, State Livestock Brand Recorder at 515-281-8617 to request a registration pack be sent to you. Work with the Recorder to select your own unique brand for approval. The fee for first time registration is $15 and renewals are $5. Each is good for five years. Once you have registered a brand, the next step is to get an iron with your brand and also a set of number brands if you wish to individually identify your cattle. Excellent brands for freeze branding are manufactured by L & H Mfg., Mandam, ND. They are made of copper alloy and come in various sizes. I like 4 inch best. A set of numbers and a brand will cost around $200-250 depending on the size selected.

Equipment Needed

  1. A brand and/or set of number brands as needed.
  2. Good head gate and squeeze chute is a must to hold the animal as still as possible while the brand is being applied.
  3. Animal hair clippers with sheep head blades.
  4. Animal hair clippers with the thin surgical blade (EA1-sur) made by the Stewart/Oyster Co. Used with the regular top blade (83AU), it will chip real close. It is best to have two sets of each type of blades on hand.
  5. A stiff rice root brush and towel for cleaning the brand area.
  6. Alcohol in a mister bottle. The best bottles are the ones costing about $2, normally used for misting flowers and sold by garden supply shores. Again, its best to have two on hand, because they wear out fairly rapidly. WalMart carries the misters.
  7. Dry ice and alcohol for cooling the irons. Alcohol must be 99%, not 70%. It is also to be used in the mister bottles. We get out alcohol from Valley Vet, Maryville, KS 800-468-0059
  8. Container or two large enough to set all the brands on the bottom at one time for cooling.
  9. A large clock with second hand to be used for timing of brand application.

Freeze Branding Procedure

  1. Break up enough dry ice to cover the bottom of the container(s) with at least two inches of ice. Pour enough alcohol over the ice to cover the ice and the brands placed down in the ice. Add more ice and alcohol as needed during the day. As soon as one is done using a brand place it back in the ice and do not use again until bubbling stops.
  2. Restrain the animal in the chute by the neck and tighten the squeeze chute on the body as much as is possible.
  3. Clip the hair in the area to be branded. In the winter or spring use a sheep head clipper first, clean the area with a brush and alcohol, followed by the other clipper with the surgical blade to get the hair as short as possible.
  4. Again clean the area with the brush, followed by alcohol and a towel to get the area absolutely clean.
  5. Just before placing each and every brand, saturate the brand site with alcohol from the mister to provide liquid contact between the iron and the hide. This step is critical to obtaining a good brand because alcohol will evaporate quickly.
  6. Apply the brand to the hide for 75 seconds, all the time spraying more alcohol on the brand with the mister every 10 seconds or so. This technique has done more to improve our bands than an other single thing we have changed in the thirty years we have been freeze branding. Watch the clock hanging beyond the chute to determine the elapsed time.

Notes and Observations

Animals will react somewhat less to the super cooled iron as opposed to a hot one, but they will still try to jump, usually about ten seconds into branding. If the brand is knocked off its location during branding, just reapply and add an extra 5 seconds plus the time lost.

One will have a good idea if the brand is done properly if the hide area is frozen stiff. One can determine this by taping with your fingernail. It should feel like taping on a ice cube. It will take three to four weeks for the brand to show up nicely.

Alcohol will migrate thru a styrofoam cooler, but not a plastic one, so plastic works best, however I happen to have and use styrofoam ones. I simply don’t leave the alcohol in them over night.

Make some arrangement where you put the irons back in the cooler each time in the same place, while you are using them for the sake of efficiency.

Safety is very important, never let an iron, alcohol, or ice touch your skin (it is 110 degrees below zero). Always wear good gloves while branding. Also do not smoke because the alcohol is very flammable.

Materials List

The author of these instructions recommends you register a brand, get the equipment, and start freeze branding. Not only will it deter thieves, but you will appreciate the convenience of permanent, easy to read identification. By the way, hot and cold brands are now an accepted replacement for tattoos on Registered Angus Cattle.

The most important thing to get good brands, is to take the time to do it right. That is the reason for most all failures.

References and Contact Information

Evan Rayl operates Rayl Angus Farms, Inc in Bridgewater Iowa.  He has been Angus breeder for 58 years and has served as President of the Iowa Angus Association on two occasions.  Mr. Rayl has been the editor of Livestock Plus for 12 years.  You may contact him by phone at 641-369-4092 or by e-mail at

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P.O. Box 913
Spring Branch, TX 78070