Ear tags are important to the beef industry as a means of individual animal identification. There are other identification methods used like: tattoos, freeze brands, hot iron brands, brisket tags, horn brands and others.

“Some of the other methods have limitations and are seldom used, compared to the ear tag,” said Eldon Cole, a University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist. “Even though a high percentage of beef cows and calves in southwest Missouri have tags in their ears, the real benefits of ear tags may not be fully realized.”

A number of steps can be taken in regard to ear tags that Cole says would enhance their value in any herd.

Numbers and Colors

For example, Cole says to keep the numbering system used on the tags basic. A combination of the alphabet and numerals is widely accepted. The 2014 calf crop’s year letter code is B in combination with the birth order, 1, 2, 3 etc. The 2015 letter code is C.

Give calves a unique number, not their dam’s number or your grandchildren’s name.

Do not change numbers. “Some producers tag calves at birth with a small tag. If a heifer goes into their replacement pool, they re-tag them with a larger tag and a different number so they don’t duplicate their dam’s number,” said Cole.

When selecting tag colors, be sure the tag and ink color are readable. Research has shown that black ink on a yellow tag is hard to beat.

Using different tag colors to designate sires is okay so long as a unique number is placed on the tag. “I’ve seen herds in which the tag color became the way to distinguish between two #24’s. One may be a blue 24 and the other one black 24. Of course when they come through the chute they could both end up as B24,” said Cole.

Placement and Use

Do not include the calf’s life history on the front of the tag. “Use the back of the tag if you want to include sire, dam and birth date,” said Cole.

Use good penmanship on tags. “If you print your own information on the tag, make sure whoever does it made an A in penmanship in school, don’t try to write the number on the tag while the animal is in the head chute slinging their head around,” said Cole.

Tag placement is best in the center of the ear or slightly toward the head. Tags are lost from pullouts if they’re located too low or too far out toward the tip of the ear. “If long hair in the ears causes readability problems, clip the hair when they are in the chute since it’s cheaper than a new tag,” said Cole.


Backup identification comes in handy in case of lost tags. Tattoos or brands serve well if they’re readable or consider placing a tag in each ear.

Tagging male calves in one ear and females in the other at birth is a step that can aid in sorting sexes later.

Keep all forms of identification consistent. “I’ve been on farms where the animal had three different numbers, one in one ear, a different one in the other ear and a freeze brand with a third number,” said Cole. “It was hard to tell which one is the primary identification.”

Cole says if a producer buys animals with meaningless numbered tags to their heard, remove them. “This happens when cattle are bought with lot numbers in their ears. We tag Missouri Show-Me-Select heifers with a number we use to track later performance so leave those tags in place,” said Cole.

Don’t get your tags from the local sale barn, vet clinic or locker plant. “I’m a believer in cutting costs, but a $1.25 tag to put in a $1,500 to $2,000 cow or her $900 calf isn’t a bad investment,” said Cole.

If using fly tags, consider placing them on the back side of the ear to prevent covering up ID tags when placed in the same ear.

Keep an ear tag knife handy at the head chute to remove unnecessary tags, especially insecticidal tags that have been spent.

Consider a well-tagged set of calves a marketing tool. “Prospective bidders will assume if they’re well-tagged with a system, they likely have good genetics and management behind them,” said Cole.

For questions regarding within herd identification, contact any of the MU Extension livestock specialists in southwest Missouri: Eldon Cole in Mt. Vernon, 417-466-3102, Andy McCorkill in Dallas County at 417-345-7551, Dr. Patrick Davis in Cedar County at 417-276-3313 or Logan Wallace in Howell County at 417-256-2391. £

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