Techniques to minimize stress at branding time

Apr 25, 2014
by WLJ

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 crowding 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 non-steroidal 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.” – Janna Kincheloe, SDSU Extension Research Associate