Why are tags in the ears of farm animals and why do some have more than one type of marking? I’ve wondered about different types of animal identification and the purpose, so I decided to do a little checking of my own to help understand the process and the reason. Here’s to learning about those identifiers!
Animal identification is a process by which animals are being identified as an individual, or as part of a group. It is done for a variety of reasons, like tracking individual animals, verification of ownership, and tracking for a herd, just to name a few. Farmers keep data like animal weight, vaccinations, and any health concerns. Identification of animals by marking the animal in some fashion dates to ancient Egyptians as a ritual to protect animals from harm. By the middle ages it was a common practice to use a process of burning a mark into the hide of an animal to identify for ownership. This practice made its way to America and was refined by using a branding iron with a unique brand to prove ownership. This process made “rounding up” cattle for a drive to market easier and also deterred cattle rustlers from stealing cattle with branded markings. There is also the cow bell with the first bells appearing more than 5000 years ago. These bells were made of pottery and were used to track the cattle, goats and sheep. Pottery bells were replaced with metal bells and appeared around 1000 BC.
Markers are done differently for different animals. Markings need to be distinguishable and yet individual to the animal breed and owner. The National Animal Identification System (NAIS) uses three components: farm or premises identification, animal identification, and animal tracking. This program works across the country for tracking and in the event of disease expedites a process for quarantine.
Pigs are marked in a variety of ways. Ear markings such as notching or tattooing are used as permanent identifiers. Ear tags can be used, but are not the best option for pigs penned together, as they can be pulled off and lost. Tags are more often used to re-number pigs that have already been marked. Ear notching is the most practical as it is visible from a distance and remains notched for the life of the pig. It is the choice of the farmer to decide which option of identification works best. Piglets are notched before reaching 25 pounds. The right ear notches signify the litter number and the left ear signifies the individual pig number. Ear tattooing is mainly used in Landrace breeds and large white stud herds.
Cattle are also marked in a variety of ways. Nearly all are marked with an individual ID and another percentage of farms mark for the herd. Cattle can be marked with plastic ear tags, making sure that tags are legible at a distance and remain readable. Tags will have the following information on it: whether calf is a boy or girl, date of birth, number born on farm, mom, and dad. Metal self-locking tags are another durable option. Tattooing is used in a series of dots. Tattooing is done similarly to the way it is done for humans. It is a method to permanently identify the cattle. Tattooing is inside the ear so the animal must be restrained to read the tattoo.
Most breeds of race horses are required to have lip tattoos. The tattoo is on the upper lip and is to identify the link between horse and owner. Some individual owners choose to freeze mark their horse by a process of permanently tattooing a letter and number into the coat of the horse with a cold iron.
Sheep have identifying markers such as ear tags but also use tattoos, ear notching, or neck chains. Tattoos in right ears mark for owner information and the left ear signifies the year of birth.
Identification is not only used to track ownership, but to also track for research and for biosecurity control. Farmers want to keep the animals safe and healthy and this system allows for easy detection of animals that may have health concerns. Just like humans have proper identification (social security numbers, driver’s licenses, etc.); the farmer needs the proper records and a way to identify his farm family.