For years on our farm, we have used ear tagging to identify our cattle. However, this year we have finally had enough. We had two young cows that needed to be bred. They were born the same year and were close enough in size that they needed to be tagged so that we could tell them apart. However, at some point in the last few weeks, both of their ear tags were snagged on our hay rings and jerked out of their ears. To make it even more complicated, they\'ve lost multiple tags, so now their ears have two long slits. My husband had to make an educated guess on which cow was which. After re-tagging these cows, he went in to the house and ordered a freeze branding kit.
There are two ways of branding cattle. Most people are familiar with the old-fashioned hot-iron branding. Old fashioned, hot iron brands are placed in a fire. When the brand is glowing hot, it is pressed onto the flank of the animal. After a few weeks, a scar will appear on the skin of the cow, marking the cattle. Currently, farmers can buy electric hot iron brands. These work on the same principle as the old fashioned kind, except that they are electric and you won\'t be messing with fires and cows at the same time. This process is pretty painful for the cow, and it mars the hide of the cattle, costing the cattle industry money.
Freeze branding is a relatively new concept in cattle identification. First, the cattle are restrained in a chute with a head gate. The location for the brand is shaved and cleaned to remove any body oils. Irons that are super-cooled with liquid nitrogen or dry ice are applied to the bare skin of the cow for 45 to 60 seconds. Freeze branding kills the pigments in the hair of the cattle, so the hairs grow back white for the rest of the cow\'s life. A freeze brand does de-value the cow\'s hide, but not quite as much as a hot iron brand. However, light colored cattle, like Charolais are not suited for freeze branding since their coats are already white.
Electronic ID is where high tech meets redneck. These identification systems use a microchip to keep track of the cattle. Sometimes the microchips are implanted in the skin, but sometimes the are contained in a bolus that the cow swallows. Other times, the animal is tagged with an electronic ear tag. The electronics consist of a microchip that contains basic information about the cow, a miniature radio antenna, and a transponder. An electronic scanner can pick up information about the cow, and the owner can instantly know the facts about that animal. These systems are widely used in the dairy industry right now. However, in the future, the beef industry may use these systems to track animals from the farm to the dinner table.
Electronic cattle identification systems are being further refined right now. Currently, they are rather expensive for the small-time farmer. Additionally, farmers can\'t visually identify their cattle without the scanning machines, so they may use ear tags or branding along with the electronic ID.
Some people also are concerned that the electronics could end up in the meat of a beef animal. One other concern that some farmers have is the invasion of privacy that electronic identification could bring. They fear that mandatory electronic identification could also lead to layers of bureaucracy that could complicate their lives. They also worry that people could hack computer based systems and \"electronically rustle\" their cattle.