Permanent Cattle Identification

G. M. Gregory

One of the most important management techniques that you can use is cattle identification. Without it, you cannot keep records on your animals. Keeping records enables you to make more informed management decisions. There are several methods that can be used to identify individual animals.

The most common form of identification is the ear tag. There are several different types of tags that range in price from $12 for 25 blank tags to $25 for 25 numbered tags. You also have to get the proper tagger to match the brand of ear tag. The ear tag is inserted into the tagger then inserted into the ear according to the instructions. Ear tags are easy to read but they tend to fade after several years or get lost. If there is not a permanent form of identification and the tag is lost the animal can no longer be positively identified.

A good method for permanent identification is tattooing the animals' ear. Most breed associations require a tattoo to register an animal. The standard tattoo outfit costs about $30.00, and this includes the tattoo gun, numbers 0-9, enough space for four digits and tattoo ink. The first step in the process is selecting the number to be used to permanently identify the animal to be tattooed.

There are many numbering systems; the most important thing is that each animal has a unique number. Once the number is selected, you should take a piece of paper and clamp the tattoo gun on the paper to check to make sure your number is set right. Then clamp the gun on the ear between the top vein and the second vein from the top. Next take an old toothbrush and put some tattoo ink on it and rub the ink into the indentions you have just made. Be very careful when tattooing because tattoos that can't be read are common. The problem with tattooing is you have to get the animal up to read the ear tattoo. Usually, an ear tag is used as a secondary identification method for easier reading. The tattoo then needs to be used only when the tag is lost.

In my opinion, the most desirable form of permanent identification is the brand. They are permanent and easy to read from a distance if they are done properly. Brands have traditionally been used to identify ownership, but can also be used for individual cow identification. There are two types of branding; hot branding and freeze branding. If you want to hot brand, you will find that traditional long-handled branding irons are hard to find. They work by placing the irons in a fire to get them red hot. The iron is placed on the spot desired and the hair is burned through to the skin. The time needed will vary because the irons will not have a consistent amount of heat. A scar will show up in the shape of the number. If the brand is left on too short or too long a time, the number will be difficult or impossible to read.

The second type of hot brand is the electric brander. A set will cost about $230.00. These irons are similar to the traditional iron except they work off of electricity; all you do is plug them in. It takes the brands about 90 seconds to heat and they keep a constant temperature. You hold the brand on for 15-20 seconds. The electric brand can also give you a bad brand if held on too long or not long enough. The biggest problem with hot branding is the scar on the hide causes an economic loss to the cattle industry. They do work better then freeze brands on Charolais cattle because of the color of their hair coat.

The second type of brand is the freeze brand. It is the most popular method of branding in North Carolina. A set of brands will cost about $125.00. There are two ways to get the brands cold; 1) dry ice and denatured alcohol, or 2) liquid nitrogen. Both methods work about the same, it just depends on which is the most available to you, but most producers will use alcohol and dry ice. First put the irons in some kind of insulated container (metal cooler works well) with dry ice and alcohol so that the numbers are completely covered. It takes about 1/2 to 1 pound of dry ice per head and 3 to 5 gallons of alcohol to brand your herd. The basic procedure is as follows:

  1. Shave the area in which the numbers are to be put, usually on the hip.
  2. Clean the area with some alcohol to get rid of any dirt and oils.
  3. Hold the brand on for 45 seconds to a minute.

The branding process kills the pigment in the hair and it will grow back white. If the brand is held on too long the number will become smeared and cause a scar. If it is not held on long enough the pigment will not be killed and you cannot read the brand. Again, be very careful and don't be too disappointed with your results the first time. Good freeze brands take practice. Freeze branding also causes a value loss in the hide, but not as much as hot iron brands.

The last type of permanent identification is the metal ear tag. They cost about $14 for 100 tags. These tags are small and you have to get close to the animal to read them, but are a cheap alternative form of permanent identification.

Identifying your animals is the first step in keeping production records. Without production records, cattlemen will find it difficult to make important business decisions that could improve the profitability of their operation.

Ear tags are a very useful management tool for secondary (visible) identification in cows and temporary identification for calves. But, because they are easily lost, ear tags should be used in combination with metal tags or tattoos for a complete identification program, or, a good branding program should be developed.

Animal Husbandry Newsletter September 1996
Department of Animal Science, North Carolina State University
Published by North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina
Distributed in furtherance of the Acts of Congress of May 8 and June 30, 1914. Employment and program opportunities are offered to all people regardless of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability. North Carolina State University, North Carolina A&T State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and local governments cooperating.
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