The information below has been supplied by dairy marketers and other industry organizations. It has not been edited, verified or endorsed by Hoard’s Dairyman.

Individual identification of cattle is important for many reasons, making it possible to identify a number of important management aspects.

“Common variables to track include body condition scoring, calving date, ease of calving, weaning weight and average daily gain, milk production, vaccination/processing date and products used, and tracking animal health and treatments. These records allow producers to make appropriate management decisions,” says Tony Hawkins, DVM, Valley Vet Supply consulting veterinarian.

Knowing individual animal treatment is essential for record-keeping purposes. Importantly, the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program places a high emphasis on proper record keeping, including individual animal identification. “We all know the importance of adhering to BQA guidelines, so we can continue to produce high-quality, safe beef that consumers will trust to feed their families,” Dr. Hawkins adds.

Let’s review ear tag and tattoo equipment, and application best practices.

Ear Tag

There are many ear tag options available: colors, retention method, numbered vs. blank, engravable, electronic identification (EID), also referred to as radio frequency identification (RFID) – the list goes on, Dr. Hawkins outlined.

When applying tags, you’ll need ear tag(s) of choice, the correct applicator, a tag removal knife and pen (for blank tags), disinfectant solution, and for safety, a chute and halter.

Best Practices

  • Make sure you have the correct tag applicator, recommends Julia Herman, DVM, MS, beef cattle specialist veterinarian with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA). “There are many styles of ear tags and they each have their own applicator. Confirm you have the correct applicators for the tag you are using before herd work.”
  • “Clean ears are ideal. Placing a tag in a muddy ear could introduce dirt or bacteria into the site. This can cause an infection or abscess, and the tag could fall out later,” explains Dr. Herman.
  • Place tags into the middle third of the ear; between the upper and lower ribs is the strongest part of the ear. This will prevent tags from being ripped out when cattle end up in the brush or trees.
  • RFID tags are easiest when read with a stick reader or wand but can still be read if animals are properly restrained. Wands allow fast reading and data management. Ensure the button is on the inside of the ear and the visual panel is on the outside of the ear when applying.


“A tattoo makes a permanent form of identification – it is often required for registration with breed associations, so seedstock producers should tattoo their cattle,” recommends Dr. Hawkins. “In addition to this, it can make an excellent ‘backup’ form of identification for commercial producers.” For example, Dr. Hawkins shared that if an animal loses their ear tag, you can reference the tattoo number and use your records to reapply the correct ear tag number.

When applying a tattoo, you will need tattoo pliers, tattoo digits, tattoo ink, paper towels or a cloth, toothbrush, rubbing alcohol, thick paper/cardboard, disposable gloves and for safety, a halter and a chute.

Best Practices

· If you have registered cattle, talk with your breed association and follow their guidelines for tattoos, recommends Dr. Herman. Work with your veterinarian if you have questions.

· Ensure cattle are properly restrained in a chute (a fitting chute is not recommended.)

· Clean the ear using paper towels or gauze and rubbing alcohol to help avoid infection and potentially spreading a virus from one animal to the next. Alcohol is the recommended disinfectant when tattooing – using soap, iodine or chlorhexidine can cause the tattoo ink to smear and not stick.

· Before tattooing the ear, you can make a test run to ensure proper placement – use the tattoo on the thick cardboard to make sure digits line up.

· Dr. Herman recommends wearing rubber or disposable gloves when tattooing for biosecurity and to keep hands clean. “My preference is to clean the ear, put the ink directly into the ear where you’ll put the tattoo, and firmly close the pliers to press ink into the tissue. Next, I have a toothbrush that I use to rub ink into the tattoo holes. Then, I place the applicator into a cup or bucket with alcohol in it, so it’s disinfected between animals.”

· The tattoo should last years, so make sure you have firm, even pressure when pressing the applicator together on the ear. Apply the tattoo in the unhaired portion of the inner ear away from where hair is growing. The hair follicles will grow where the tattoo was placed, which will cause fading. Producers may need to check back for legibility over time.

Dr. Herman encourages producers to always emphasize human safety when tagging or tattooing and working around the head of these animals. Make sure cattle are restrained appropriately, and if needed, use a halter to help improve safety and placement of the tag and tattoo.

“A well-thought identification program provides the opportunity for producers to keep accurate records, which will ultimately optimize production and profitability,” said Dr. Hawkins.

For your livestock identification needs and to learn more, visit

About Valley Vet Supply

Valley Vet Supply was founded in 1985 by veterinarians to provide customers with trusted animal health solutions. Building on over half a century of experience in veterinary medicine, Valley Vet Supply serves equine, pet and livestock owners with thousands of products and medications. With an in-house pharmacy that is licensed in all 50 states, and verified through the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), Valley Vet Supply is the dedicated source for customers’ horse, livestock and pet needs. For more information, please visit

For more information/images, please contact:

Aimee Robinson

Valley Vet Supply