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Extension > Agriculture > Dairy Extension > Calves and heifers > Who's yo momma? ID and record keeping

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Who's yo momma? ID and record keeping

Brenda Miller, University of Minnesota Extension Educator

Published in Dairy Star June 28, 2014

Have you ever walked into a barn, heifer lot, or out to a pasture only to see cows or calves with no ear tags, brands, or otherwise lack of visual identification? It's probably happened to everyone. With dairy cows calving year round, it's always a good idea to get those newborn calves identified and recorded as soon as they hit the ground. In addition, by keeping good records it often makes herd management decisions easier.

Why is it important to ID your cows and calves?

An old saying goes like this, "You can't manage what you can't measure." If you don't know who's who then it would be quite difficult to effectively manage and improve your operation. It doesn't matter if you have 30 or 3,000 cows; every producer needs to have an identification system in place.

What kinds of identification are available and what tools do I need?

There are many different types of identification available for bovines. Some of the most common forms include ear tags, electronic ID, brands, and tattoos. There are pros and cons to each form as well as the number of tools necessary for implementation. Your list may differ slightly as you think of your operation and needs.

There are a few things to consider when deciding which type of system to use for your operation. For example, ear tags are an easy, first form of identification for any age or size of animal with many different options to choose from. Choices can include color, size, personalized, laser engraved, or write-on tags. One option you may look at is double tagging your animals with one small and one large tag (or two large tags) both with the same name/number. That way should one tag get lost you will still have the other one and can replace the lost tag the next time the animal runs through the chute or comes into the barn. This idea can be used for the electronic RFID tags as well. One ear would have the RFID button tag deep in the ear and the other would have a large, easy-to-read (non-RFID) tag. In addition, if applied in the ear correctly, a RFID button tag is really hard to lose. However, if you're worried about losing tags, a more permanent solution would be a freeze or hot brand, that is, IF you have the help and facilities.

If you are running a heifer raising operation with animals from numerous farms, asking each farm to use a specific colored tag for their farm's heifers might be an option. By doing this, you would easily be able to identify who's from which farm and be able to trace a disease or item of interest if needed.

So what about record keeping?

Every farm should be keeping records especially on animal identification and any treatments used on a specific animal. If you're not, you better start right now. End of story. You want to know when your cows should be calving so you are ready. When artificially inseminating, write down the service date, service sire, and due date for each cow. Keep a chart or a single page per cow to record when she calved, bull or heifer, dead or alive, ID of the calf, and any additional observations or comments. Add to her chart every year she calves and include her vaccinations, illnesses, treatments, and any other life events she may have. If you are using DairyComp, PC Dart, or a similar program, you should already be recording this information.

Keep your record book in an easy to access location. If you don't have a computer program such as DairyComp or PC Dart, you can create an electronic version via Excel or Word file, etc. Another option is to keep a small notebook and pen in your pocket or tagging bucket so you can write the info down when you process a newborn calf and then transfer the information to your record book or electronic records (or both).

Now that you are thinking of your identification options, choose one that will best fit your operation, purchase the supplies needed, and ID those animals. Remember, you can't manage what you can't measure and you can't measure if you don't know who's who in your herd. Good luck!

Type Tools needed Pros Cons
Ear tags
  • Tags
  • Tagging pliers
  • Permanent tag marker if not pre-numbered
  • Quick
  • Inexpensive
  • Flexible
  • Easy to read
  • Tag size/color options
  • Laser engraving option
  • Can personalize
  • Can rip out or get lost
  • Ink might fade
Electronic ID—ear tags (button)
  • Tags
  • Tagging pliers
  • Wand reader/scanner
  • Quick
  • Usually stays in ear, if correctly placed
  • Electronic—can send info to computer or smart phone
  • More expensive system
  • Not readable from distance
  • May want an additional large tag to read
  • Can fall out or get lost
Brands (freeze)
  • Branding irons
  • Liquid nitrogen
  • Container for nitrogen
  • Electric clippers
  • Brush or blower
  • Chute/restraint system
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Timing device
  • Gloves
  • Easy to read
  • Permanent
  • Multiple locations available (shoulder, rump, etc.)
  • Upfront investment cost
  • Can't be changed or removed
  • Animal restraint system
  • Usually a team job
  • Time and patience required
  • Tattoo pliers
  • Number or letter tattoo dyes
  • Ink
  • Permanent
  • Can be used in multiple species
  • Animal restraint system
  • Hard to read in dark ears
  • May want an additional, more readable form of ID
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