Livestock Identification

As long as civilizations have maintained herds of livestock, there has been a need of identifying them.  The reasons for identification of our cattle have grown over the years from a simple form of proof ownership to include record keeping, marketing, tracking transport animal health to name a few.  Each method of identification has advantages and drawbacks and because of that, it is often desirable to have our cattle identified by more than one means.

Herd record keeping: Assigning individuals within the herd some form of marking that is unique to them is the first vital component of a good recordkeeping system; without identification, it is rather difficult to keep detailed records.  Records on calving dates, calf sire and dam, vaccination and treatment records, breeding, and performance traits such as weaning weights are all components of a well-rounded record keeping and management system. Unfortunately, recording data is the easy part of the equation. Without evaluating your records periodically and using the knowledge mined from them to make management, breeding and culling decisions the information is trivial.

Ownership: Most everyone has had an experience or two where your cattle got out onto a neighbor or theirs got onto you; having some sort of unique way of identifying them can help them get back to the right home.  In the event of theft, branding is the only form of ownership identification that is legally binding.

Forms of livestock identification can easily be broken into two distinct categories, permanent and temporary.  As the name would indicate, permanent identification stays with the animal until death.  Permanent methods of cattle   identification would include branding, tattoo, and notching.  Metal identification tags such as used for brucellosis vaccination or trichomonisis identification could be considered a permanent means of identification. The numbers stamped on the metal tags are unique to the animal and recorded at the federal level. Some form of permanent identification is desirable for ownership purposes.

Brand: In order to be legally binding, a brand must be registered with the Missouri Department of Agriculture, have at least 2 characters and be at least 3 inches in diameter.  Brands are allowed in one of three places on either side of the animal, the shoulder, the center of the rib cage, and the hip.  In Missouri, it cost $35 to initially register a brand and a $20 maintenance fee is required every five years.  Before registering a brand, put some thought into the design of the brand, avoid complex designs as they are more likely to result in a blotched, difficult to read brand.

With branding, most envision an era gone by with cowboys dragging cattle to the fire, quickly pulling the branding iron off and slapping it of the side of the calf. Fortunately, most have adapted newer methods, utilizing an electric branding iron and animals are branded while restrained in the squeeze chute. The process is much less stressful on both the cattle and the people doing the work; electric irons take less time to hot and often leave a more legible mark on the calf. 

Over the last twenty years, the freeze brand has gained in popularity as a less painful alternative to the fire brand. With freeze branding, copper irons chilled in either liquid nitrogen or a dry ice and alcohol solution are used.  If done properly, the color pigment in the affected hair follicles is destroyed, leading to the hair growing back white.  Unfortunately, on lighter colored cattle the white doesn’t show up as well.  You can hold the irons on longer and create a brand that resembles a hot brand. The process really becomes more of an art than a science and requires some experience to get it right every time.  It is even common to freeze brand animal identification numbers onto the hip of the breeding herd because they are easily visible at a distance.  

Marketing tool: The brand can become your “trademark” for other endeavors as well. Society today puts a high value on knowing where there food comes from and sourcing locally from known sources. Your brand could be a part of that marketing outlet if you chose to go down the direct marketing road.      

Ear tags: inexpensive, easily applied and quite visible under most circumstances. The biggest drawbacks to ear tags is the fact that they are nearly as easy to remove as they are to insert. They can get caught on fences, limbs, and other obstacles in the pasture and ripped out. In the event of theft, a thief can quickly cut the old tags out and all of a sudden, your form of identification is gone. Besides the chance of loss, ear tags will wear out over time and the numbers on them fade away. The newer laser etched tags and those that engrave the identifying characters into the surface tend to remain visible longer.  

One of the most important things to remember about ear tags is to devise a system of tagging that makes sense and has value to you. Develop some sort of system that can identify the age of individual animals. Some have a system where they use a different color of tag every year,  others use a numbering system where the first number coincides with the year of birth such as 701 for the first calf born in 2017. Regardless of the system, make sure you understand it.

Identification of the animal should happen as early in the calf’s life as possible. There are a couple of reasons why we want to have them individually identified at a young age.  Mostly, it comes down to making sure you get it right.  The likelihood of getting it wrong when the calf is fresh is much lower than trying to pair up cows and calves when they are older.  It can be more stressful as the calves get a little bigger and have more energy and strength as well. Branding on the other hand can wait until a more convenient time when you are getting the cattle up and running them through the chute for other reasons. 

Identifying your animals is certainly worth the small added cost associated with the process and can pay you back in dividends later on down the road. To register a brand, go to the Missouri Department of Agriculture’s website and looking through the brand requirements and regulations.  The brand book is all online and can be found and searched through at the same website

Source: Andy McCorkill, Livestock Specialist