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Less is more when branding sheep

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

During last year’s American Sheep Industry (ASI) convention, wool buyers and processors expressed concern that the current United States paint wasn’t scouring out of wool. As a result of this information, ASI decided to conduct a paint trial to help pinpoint paint problems.
“Wool was coming out of the scouring train with hard, dry, brittle chunks of paint still in it and these chunks softened and came into contact with clean wool they would contaminate it,” explains ASI wool consultant Ron Cole. He adds there has been a high level of international concern about the amount of paint used in the United States.
Sheep producers, especially those west of the Missouri River, use paint as their primary method of identifying and separating sheep. This is of particular importance for bands grazed on public lands where mixing can occur due to weather and predators.
According to Cole, the most common paint-related problems involve the hard, dry lumps that make it through the scouring process. If they make it into the combing process they cause a lot of problems, including breaking combs and compromising wool color.
Cole designed a trial to test all commercially available paint products and compare the scouring results of each, using ewes from the University of Wyoming. Cole put three number eight brands on each side of several ewes. On one side he used a five millimeter iron brand and on the other a 15 millimeter brand.
“We wanted to compare the size of brands, different paint companies and also determine if there was a notable scouring difference between paint colors within a brand,” explains Cole.
“We even used what are being considered two wild cards. One is a new cotton industry product that is black and 100 percent water-soluble and has a good scouring reputation. The other is a 100-plus-year-old family recipe called Formula X. It has been handed down at least four generations and the producers have never had any problems from their wool buyers,”
After 150 days one brand was shorn off each side of several test ewes and sent to multiple testing labs. The results were inconclusive. Swatches went through a scouring train, which consisted of three to five hot water bathes, two with soap and the rest rinses. They were pulled out at the end and evaluated for paint removed. Less than 25 percent was being removed, which Cole said was very disappointing.
“Common scouring was showing over 80 percent removal, so the results were frustrating,” Cole comments.
At 240 days another brand was shorn off several ewes. Samples were sent to two commercial scouring trains and a Texas A&M research facility with a small scouring train. A variety of scouring trains are in use throughout the trial to determine if any one scouring method is more or less effective than the others.
Cole is still waiting for all of the results from these tests, but is optimistic the additional time brands spent on the ewe will result in a higher percentage of paint removed during scouring.
The initial conclusions are to keep the “less paint the better” theory in mind when branding sheep.
“Less is better when you’re applying paint. A smaller applicator lends itself to applying less paint and one under five millimeters is recommended,” explains Cole. “Even after six months we could still see color and identify sheep by color with a smaller iron. The brand wasn’t always legible with the smaller iron, but knowing the color allowed differentiation.”
Cole adds that simply using less paint can also reduce costs. With sheep paint costing around $24 per gallon, the cost can quickly add up when branding thousands of head.
Another option is branding sheep with hot nose brands. Cole comments that he knows very few people who use them and that there could be a potential humane issue regarding hot branding sheep. Also, it’s time-consuming and more labor intensive than paint branding. However, it is permanent and highly effective in guarding against theft.
Ear tags are another form of identification. Also used to age ewes, colored tags can help separate sheep by owner. According to Cole, most shearers don’t like tags, especially in the right ear, due to a shearing stroke that sweeps up the right side of the neck. If a metal tag catches in the shearer’s clippers it can ruin the comb and potentially injure the shearer.
“My recommendation at this time is to use a small-iron paint brand on the topknot,” says Cole. The topknot is sheared separately and very easy to keep separate from fleeces during the shearing process. It is also a highly visible part of the sheep that would allow for easy distinction on the range.
More information will be made available to producers at the end of the trial through ASI publications.
For more information contact Ron Cole at 970-339-9044. Heather Hamilton is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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