There are still cattle farmers who believe the marking of their livestock is a waste of time. The truth is that this small chore has numerous advantages that will ultimately save producers a great deal of money and effort. Without reliable identification in the form of a mark, the animal cannot be traced back to the owner, which will throw his or her ownership into question.

marking livestock
There can be no question as to the identity of this calf with its clearly visible ear tag.

The marking of animals and other property with a hot iron has been used for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians branded their animals by pressing a hot metal marker against the animal, leaving an identifying mark. The process continued throughout the ages and eventually spread throughout Europe, even reaching as far as the British colonies, which included countries such as South Africa.

Although animals are still physically marked, the practice has become more sophisticated in recent times with the advent of ear tags and electronic chips, which are used in conjunction with computers.

Abiding by the law

In South Africa, the Animal Identification System (AIS) is the national register of animal identification marks, and the Animal Identification Act, 2002 (Act 6 of 2002) makes it compulsory to mark all cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and even ostriches. These legal requirements help the livestock industry and the South African Police Service (SAPS) to curb livestock theft and to simplify the task of retrieving stolen animals.

Yet there are many who trade livestock without giving much thought to the basic requirements of the Act. Court cases involving livestock theft are often thrown out of court because of disputes relating to the identity of stolen livestock and owners who cannot prove ownership.

Court cases involving livestock theft are often thrown out of court because of disputes relating to the identity of stolen livestock and owners who cannot prove ownership.

In fact, the increase in livestock theft is often attributed to the fact that animals are not marked correctly. Feedlots, producers, speculators, auctioneers, abattoirs and buyers at livestock auctions can unknowingly break the law by receiving stolen goods, according the Red Meat Producers’ Organisation (RPO).

Different methods of branding livestock

Hot-iron banding is the most common way of marking cattle. The branding iron is heated in a fire until it becomes an ash-grey colour. One can test the heat of the iron on a piece of wood to see if it is hot enough.

According to the National Stock Theft Prevention Forum guide for producers, it is easier to use a separate iron for each character of the identification mark. It is also best to do the branding in a crush, with enough helpers to keep the animal still – an immobiliser or knee-halter can be used to guarantee the safety of the workers and animal.

The hot iron must be placed, and not pressed, against the animal’s skin for roughly three seconds. Cold water or ice can be applied to cool the lesion. Do not use manure, as it can lead to infection.

Electric branding irons utilise an electric element to heat the branding iron until it is hot enough. It works the same way as a branding iron heated in a fire, but its temperature can be controlled by increasing or decreasing the flow of electricity.

Freeze branding is considered more humane than hot-iron branding. It uses a branding iron that has been chilled using a coolant such as dry ice or liquid nitrogen. Rather than burning a scar into the skin of the animal, the iron damages the hair cells that produce pigment, causing the animal’s hair to grow white where the branding was done. It is, however, not always as successful as a heated iron and may involve expensive equipment.

Cattle should be marked with a branding iron when they are around six months old and when the first two permanent incisors appear.

Placement of branding

The branding can be placed on any area of the hide that is clearly visible, except the neck. Do not damage the valuable parts of the hide. The first owner will usually put his or her mark on the left hind leg, the second owner will mark the left front shoulder, the third the right back leg and the fourth the right front shoulder.

marking livestock
A branding mark must be officially registered, allowing the SAPS to trace it back to the lawful owner.

A tattoo can be used to mark cattle, small stock, pigs and ostriches. Sheep, goats and pigs are tattooed in their ears and ostriches under their wings. Producers can also use a branding iron to mark ostriches on the thighs when they are six months or older.

Using ear and electronic tags

Ear tags are the most recent form of livestock identification and have both visual and management benefits for producers. The unique number on the ear tag means that the animal’s identity can be established quite quickly and can be linked to the performance and other data of that particular animal.

Newer generation electronic tags offer a wide range of applications and allows for excellent recordkeeping.

According to information supplied by CattleMax, there is a continuous need for improved management and production practices and the popularity of electronic identification/radio-frequency identification (ID/RFID) tags are also on the rise.

Visual ear tags are available in different colours and are large enough so that the particulars relating to identification can be read from a distance. Electronic ID tags are small tags that look like buttons; they have a unique 15-digit number printed on them that can be read by scanning the tag with an electronic identification (EID) reader. These tags are designed to last the entire lifetime of the animal.

Read more about cattle branding in Zimbabwe.

Electronic tags can be used in conjunction with software programs that are capable of capturing all the information of the particular animal, including its age, weight, performance data and veterinary history, and transferring it to a computer in the producer’s office.

This system can make selection decisions for replacement heifers and the culling of substandard performers much easier. The relevant data of each animal is readily available and will ease the pressure in terms of management.

Another significant advantage is that the system simplifies the task of keeping diseases from spreading, as the movement of sick animals can be prevented. – Andries Gouws, Stockfarm

For enquiries, contact Gerhard Schutte, CEO of the RPO, on 082 556 7296 or send an email to