The truck in the driveway has a VIN, the vaccine in the refrigerator has a lot number, but does the cow and her calf in the field have a tag?  According to the most recent NAHMS survey, cow and herd identification is least common when herd size was less than 50 cows.  Based on their survey, 41% of small farms do not have individual cows identified or have a herd identification.  The report also indicated 61% of the operations with less than 50 cows did not identify calves.  Calf identification also occurred less frequently than cow identification on farms with more than 50 cows.  Whether it’s for marketing purposes, theft prevention, or tracking productivity, individual animal and herd identification is something all cattle producers should adopt, and identification systems work best when they include a combination of permanently affixed id’s such as brands or tattoos and temporarily affixed id’s such as plastic ear tags.

With cow and calf values exceeding $1,000, Arkansas ranchers have begun to express more interest in branding as a theft deterrent and is accomplished using hot irons or cold irons.  Branding is a highly visible traditional method of permanently identifying original ranch ownership as well as individual animal identification.  Branding has been used in Arkansas markets to identify cows that were destined for slaughter during brucellosis eradication and is used today for tracking live cattle originating from countries such as Mexico and Canada.  Arkansas, unlike some states, does not require branding and branding is not very common in the state.  Before designing a ranch brand and using this method of identification, contact the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission.  Ranch brands must be unique to each ranch and must be registered.

The plastic ear tag is the most common form of highly visible individual animal identification used on Arkansas ranches.  Tags are often a simple numerical sequence for identity and require a one-piece or two-piece tag applicator gun.  Blank tags and tag markers allow for customized tagging or tags can be special ordered to meet id needs.

Other common forms of identification include metal tags, electronic id tags (EID), and tattooing.  There is a certainty when it comes to plastic ear tags and that certainty is some cows will lose them.  Adopting a secondary form of identification such as metal tags or tattoos is a good practice.  One might be surprised at how easy it is to misidentify cows that have lost tags, even in herds with less than 50 cows.

Choosing a system of id to use seems to be a lot easier than choosing the actual identifier.  For tags, the sequential numbering system is common.  Some ranches tag females sequentially as they enter the mature herd.  Some adopt the practice of tagging calves with a number that matches their dam while others tag calves sequentially at birth or during processing and use records to relate calf id with dam and sire id.  When using this format, replacement heifers will be re-assigned a number when they enter the breeding herd to prevent number duplication.

Another format incorporates a leading year value for all ids followed by a number sequence that often represents birth order.  For example id 810 may be the id of a mature cow and this also indicates she was born in 2008 and was the 10th calf born that year.  Her calf may be tagged 425 which indicates the 25th calf born in 2014.  This is a very practical method of identifying individuals and does not require id re-assignment for replacement heifers.  However, there are two concerns with using a leading number to represent ‘year’.  First, there may be duplication if any females are kept in the herd for more than 10 years. By example, 210 may be the 2-year-old or the 12-year-old.  A person could probably distinguish the one from the other when looking at the females “in the field”, but couldn’t when looking at the females “on-paper”.  A second problem that arises when using a number to represent ‘year’ is software programs may drop leading zeros.  Spreadsheets are often used to keep records and by default, a cow entered as 0100 will be saved as 100 unless the entry is formatted as text.

An alternative approach to using a leading number to represent year is to use letter designations for year.  There is an international year/letter designation for animal id.  The year 2014 is designated B and C, D, and E represent 2015, 2016, and 2017.  This system excludes letters I, O, Q, and V to avoid error.  This system helps circumvent the previously mentioned issues.  Branding individual id becomes more of an issue when incorporating up to 22 letters.  Although the system appears near perfect, records beyond 21 years could create duplication that would affect cow performance indexes such as MPPA (most probable producing ability).

Regardless of the id system used, make use of the system.  A well planned out id system that individually identifies all inventory (cows, bulls, and calves) becomes the foundation for performance based replacement heifer selection and cow culling.

Source: Shane Gadberry, Associate Professor – Animal Science