Ear tags are used to individually identify cattle within a herd, and are found across the world. They come in a number of colors and sizes. Some come with numbers already melted and/or colored on them, and others come blank.
We individually identify our cattle for a number of reasons. Having ear tags helps match mother cows to baby calves, can aid in determining how old a cow is, note which animals you need to treat for sickness, and can be used in countless other circumstances where you need to remember an individual animal.
While brands are a permanent form of identification and can also be used to ID cattle, they are sometimes very hard to see and read. Brands are better at determining ownership of one to several head of cattle than helping you separate cow A and cow B, when they're both owned by the same person.
My dad uses green, 3-star (that's the size) Y-Tex tags. They come in bunches of 25, in clear bags, as can be seen on the left. Also included are 25 buttons, which are poked through the animal's ear to secure the ear tag in place. They work a lot like earrings do in humans, and giving a cow an ear tag is done the same way a human's ear is pierced, just with bigger equipment.
We write on our own ear tags, and use a very durable ink. It's important you don't get any of this ink on your mother's/wife's/sisters table, as it will likely be there forever, and she won't be happy.
Hence the spreading of newspapers over the work area. Ink comes in black or white, and we use both from year to year.
This is one of my jobs sometimes, and I'm not the best at it. You want to write big, clear, nice numbers on the tags so they are easy to read once in the cow's ear. The bigger and clearer the number, the better. Sometimes you have to read an ear tag in less than ideal conditions, and it needs to be legible.
We put the year the animal was born at the top of the ear tag. You can see the 1 here, and that stands for 2011. Next year we will put a 2 up there for 2012. Then we record the individual number below that. So, the tag I'm writing on would be read 1 over 4.
Some people put the number representing the year the animal was born at the beginning of the big numbers on the tag. So, for this year they would start at 100 and work up, then next year they would start with number 200 and work up, and the first number always represents the year the animal was born. If we did that, instead of that tag reading 1 over 4, it would say 104. This method only works if you keep under 100 replacement heifers each year, otherwise you would have to duplicate numbers, which causes an awful lot of confusion.
Some producers add more information to tags. For example, registered breeders (those that raise purebred bulls and females) may list pedigree information, birth dates, and more, on their tags.
Having the year the animal was born is useful when determining the animal's age, which is sometimes a critical factor for making management decisions. Lots of people sell cows that are over a certain age, or sort them based on age during different times of the year. Having this information displayed on an ear tag is a matter of efficiency and convenience.
In younger animals, like yearlings, tag numbers are often recorded when looking at potentially sick animals. You will "watch" animals that you aren't sure are sick. For example, it's not uncommon to have a list of ear tag numbers to "look at closely" when you go through your freshly weaned calves.
For a lot of things, ear tags are a faster, more efficient form of identification. The trade-off is they aren't permanent, and can be lost by the animal, or cut out by a human.
Here are the first 25 tags, plus a couple for my brother, sister and I's heifers. My tags are pink, a color my dad picked because from a distance its easily distinguishable from green. Kyle's are the blue tags and Holly's are yellow. All of Holly's tags say Holly, then a number. So that tag reads 1 over Holly1. She insists on her name being on each tag.
Some people make each calf's ear tag number match it's mothers tag number. So, the only difference between the two tag numbers is the year. As with most things, there are a number of "right" ways to do it, and people find the method that works best for them and their circumstances.
This is the ear tagger, aka big ear piercing gun. You don't want to lose this, and you want a spare in case you do lose this. Calving season is a time of almost constant sleep deprivation, and something like losing the last set of ear taggers could send a tired parent, sibling or spouse over the edge.
The clip is one thing that helps prevent this. These taggers can be clipped to 4-wheelers, saddles, carharts, and any number of other things. They're also durable, and if you do lose them the chance is they'll be fine if you ever find them again.
The tag and button are secured like so. When you squeeze the gun it pushes the sharp-pointed button through the ear, and through the visible hole of the tag. The design prevents the button from coming back out, and the tag is secure.
This simple, durable and effective design is key. When tagging newborn calves there is always the chance you will find the mother cow less than keen on the idea. Many a rancher has been run under a pickup, over a fence or back to his horse by a seriously angry cow intent on running him over and protecting her baby. You want your taggers to work, work fast, and survive if you have to leave on the ground in your haste to evade the angry cow.
You also want to position the tag properly in the calf's ear. If it's too close to the outer edge of the ear, the weight of the tag can cause the ear to droop, and it can also be ripped out very easily. There are also veins running through the ear that you want to avoid.
Another view. Cattle can be tagged at any stage in life, but lots of people tag calves as soon as they're born, and record their tag number, their sex, and their mother's tag number in a book. Some producers record additional information as well. Some of this information can be quite personal and colorful to the situation at hand, and is designed to help remember notable things about the cow, calf, or both. It may also note if any calving related issues occurred.
We record both the cow and calf's ear tag numbers, if the calf was a bull or a heifer, the color of the cow, the color of the calf, and if there were any calving related difficulties.
We tag our heifer's calves when they're born, but tag our cow's calves when we brand, and don't write down all the information I listed above for cow's calves. We don't need to match (pair) them with their mother's or individually identify them until after branding, and they're usually much better at it than heifers are. We also don't see our cows often during calving. Some people ride through their cows daily throughout calving season, checking for issues and tagging newborn calves.
Most people also put every ear tag in the same ear, every year. We switched years, sometime between 2004 and 2006 based on these cows, to accommodate our feeders chute setup. When feeding we would also put RFID tags in our steers, and sometimes our heifers, and we made sure those were on the side of his chute with the wand to record them.
RFID tags are radio frequency tags that can record and store information. There was a market premium available for having them in your cattle when we were feeding ours. They can also be used for age and source verification. Our feeder would record individual animal weights, and if and when he doctored an animal, and put that information on the RFID tags. This allowed us to figure individual average daily gains, and see if doctoring a calf impacted his performance, among other things.
This is one example of how tags are helpful when dealing with cows and calves. I bet you can guess which calf is hers. Even if everyone was sporting the same colored ear tags, if you had matched each calf to its mother in your book, you could look them up and determine very fast which baby goes with which cow.
Usually they match themselves up, but especially first-calf heifers can be really simple at times, and in those instances it's very handy to know for sure who her baby is. This is especially critical if the calf is having problems. For example, if she lost him and it's really cold outside. You need to find his mother and get him something warm to drink and make sure she is taking adequate care of him.
As calves are weaned, fed, or kept as replacements, ear tags continue to play a major role in quickly individually identifying each animal throughout it's lifetime, and is another example of a management tool rancher's use to keep animals healthy and thriving.