Tags vs Tattoos: Which Is Better For Animal Identification?

One of our Boer nannies with her individual tag showing. The other ear has her flock identification tag.

Once you get more than just a few animals in your herd things can start to get confusing. If you have a small herd for pets or fun, no big deal. More than that requires some planned identification.

Should you use tags or tattoos, or both? What are the advantages and disadvantages of either?

Ear tags are versatile, easy to read and put in the ear, but not permanent. Tattoos are permanent identification of the animal that takes more time to put in than tags and can not be read from a distance.

Tags vs. tattoos info chart

Increasing herd size is great news for your farm, that’s a lot of babies to sell!

However, it can start to get hard to tell what baby goes with what mom once those babies start straying off and exploring with their friends!

This is a great “problem” to have, babies zooming all over means you have healthy happy livestock and you are doing a top job taking care of them.

In order to keep track of your growing herd, you are going to need to figure out some sort of identification plan.

Should You Raise Sheep Or Goats will help you figure out which small ruminant will work best for you.

Animals need identification

When you know the babies are going to be born soon and the numbers of head are going to start veering towards confusing, you need to make a choice.

If you want to be able to track what the animal is doing individually, it must have identification.

Additionally, all breed registries will require identification on the animal, every animal, it’s whole life to make sure the registry records are accurate.

This makes quite a bit of sense, after all the entire purpose of a registry is to track an individual animal so you as a buyer can be sure of what you are getting.

Raising Farm Animals Together gives you some tips on keeping your farm humming along, when you have different animals (and yourself!) to keep happy.

Pet animals don’t need a tag or tattoo

To be clear you don’t need to keep individual records on an animal to raise livestock successfully.

For pets or a non registered hobby herd, identification is not a big deal. If you are happy with looking at your herd and knowing them on sight, that’s super.

However, if you are raising livestock for a business reason, or just want to keep track of how your herd is performing, you need to have tags or tattoos.

Having individual identification will help you keep track of which animals did what so you can make informed decisions about the future of your herd.

Livestock identification can be tag, tattoo and brands

LivestockCommon form of Identification
Cattle, commercial herdFor your records: tags
For visual identification of your herd: branding
Cattle, registered herdFor your records: tags
For registration: tattoos
For visual identification of your herd: branding
Goats, commercial herdFor your records: tags
To sell: scrapie tags with farm/ranch ID number
Goats, registered herdFor your records: tags
To register: tattoos
To sell: scrapie tags with farm/ranch ID number
Sheep, commercial flockFor your records: tags
To sell: scrapie tags with farm/ranch ID number
Sheep, registered flockFor your records: tags
To sell: scrapie tags with farm/ranch ID number
To register: farm and individual sheep number
on tag that stays with sheep it’s entire life
Pigs, commercial herdEar notches, tags or none
Pigs, registered herdEar notches or tags
Tattoos or ear notches for registration
RabbitsTattoos for both records and registration

There are multiple methods of identification available to the livestock owner and every one has it’s purpose and best use situation.

Tags and/or tattoos would be the most commonly seen, especially on smaller farms. Both are easy to do and readily available.

For permanent identification of the stock there are a few other options available, generally branding and ear notching.

Large cattle operations use branding as the main form of identification, instead of tags or tattoos. Branding is permanent and easily seen on the animal.

Other farmers use ear notches, especially in pigs. Ear notches are permanent as well and easy to see.

The notches are also easy to read once you know the system and have a little practice.

Tags don’t work well in pigs, they tend to rip them out.

Ear Tagging is popular for ID

Ear tagging is by far the most common way to identify livestock on small farms.

However, keep in mind that nothing is perfect or suited for all situations so consider the good and the bad before you decide which to use.

Pros of using ear tags: tags are easy

  • Tags are common and easy to find
  • Many choices of sizes and colors
  • Easy to put into the ear
  • Can be read from a distance
Here’s a quick video showing putting an ear tag in a ewe lamb.

Tags are easy to find

Ear tags are the first choice of people wanting to up their game as far as keeping track of their animals individually.

Tags are easy to get, come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and colors and are pretty easy to put in.

Blank tags are an option for special tag needs

There are also blank tags that you can write whatever information you want to on them.

We got a longhorn steer at a sale that was from a big farm in the eastern part of the state.

His tag was handwritten with his number and sire info on the bottom of the tag.

This is also the case with our main breeding ram.

The farm he came from keeps extensive records so their is a printed at the manufacturer number on the tags and a handwritten number, as well.

ram with two tags both have some printing by manufacturer and some handwritten numbers
Here is our Lambshire ram with a good view of his two tags. The white tag has the printed scrapie information on the front and is handwritten only on the back.
ram tag with handwritten numbers
This tag has the farm name printed on the back with all of the numbering done by hand. The front of the tag has 8181 as well as a few letters, all done with the tag marking pen.

Handwritten tags are also common practice on smaller dairy farms to keep track of their heifers.

Blank tags do require a special tag marking pen, don’t just use a regular permanent marker. The regular marker won’t last, especially out in the sun.

Tags are easy to put in and easy to read

Putting the tag in the ear is easy. The tagger works just like a pair of pliers. Just make sure you have the front and back of the same number!

The biggest plus of tags is that they are easily read from a distance of a few feet away.

You can quickly look at an animal and get the information without having to catch and hold it’s head to read the numbers.

When you order tags:

  1. make sure you have the tagger that works with the tags you ordered, the appropriate tagger will be listed with the tag description
  2. if you are ordering tags for sheep or goats, make sure you get the scrapie approved tags (not all tags are approved).

To be clear: I am not a fan of the mandatory scrapie tags.

To sell our sheep (lambs or adults) we are required to have the tags or we get charged a per head fee at the auction for the auction to put the tags in as required by the state.

The fee is $2.50 per head for a tag that we can buy for $0.60, so we put them in ourselves.

Tags color can be used as part of your system

Another advantage of tags is that you could choose a color system so that all the animals born in each year would have the same color tag.

This means you can easily tell the age of the sheep or cow by just looking. You could also easily tell how she is doing compared to others her age.

Another option would be color coding tags by sex or in the case of sheep and goats, having different colors denoting single, twin, triplet.

The down side is that color coding by year would also require buying more tags overall compared to just using up the entire pack of one color, (since there are likely to be left over tags from the previous year’s color).

While I love the idea of color coding with tags, we aren’t there yet. We just use white, boring but simple.

Three things to know about tag color:

  1. you don’t need to change tag color, you can use the same color for years and for all animals in your herd
  2. some tag colors are easier to read than others, generally lighter tag colors are easier to read on the animal
  3. don’t use blue, this color is used by the USDA (at least in sheep and goats)

Cons of using ear tags: can come out

  • Can come out, by accident or on purpose
  • Can be snagged and rip the ear
  • Must be purchased every year

Ear tags are not permanent

By far the biggest issue with ear tags is that they are not permanent. Tags can and frequently do, come out.

An easy example is the animal catches her ear in the fence and rips out the tag, a very common happening. We have multiple ewes that have done this.

The bigger the tag, the more likely it seems to be to catch and be yanked out.

Ear tags can be removed/cut off

The other less innocent reason for missing tags is someone taking them out for deceptive reasons.

This would include reinserting a tag of their choosing to mislead others about the source and/or lineage of the animal.

This is a good reason to double check registration tattoos!

More tags need to be purchased each year

Tags will also need to be purchased frequently. They come in packs of 20 with price based on size and brand.

You will also need to buy an applicator-the pliers like tool you squeeze to put in the tag.

Be aware the applicator must match the brand of the tags.

All applicators do not work with all brands of tags, they are brand (and sometimes tag size) specific.

Double tag to ensure identification

An easy answer to the problem of lost tags is to double tag the animal.

The hope here is that even if the animal would manage to get out one of the tags, the likelihood of loosing both tags is low.

I have to admit, I’m sure there are a few talented individuals who can manage this, especially sheep or goats that stick their heads through fences!

Overall, for most animals using two tags will make sure that at least one of them ends up staying in the ear.

The down side is that double tagging also doubles the cost to tag each animal.

If identification is important to your operation, doubling the tagging cost is worth it.

Tattooing is permanent ID

Pros of tattoos: permanent identification

  • Permanent identification of the animal
  • Purchase the kit once and use repeatedly
  • Keeps you and your stock in compliance with breed registries
  • Very hard to alter (closer to cheater proof than tags)
  • Only repurchasing is ink or replacement of lost letters/numbers

Tattoos are permanent

Tattoos are an easy way to ensure permanent identification of your animals.

A well done tattoo is easy to read (once you have the animal caught) and will never fall out or get caught in a fence, and actually gets easier to read as the animal grows (since the ear is now bigger).

Tattoo kit can last a lifetime

Once you purchase the tattoo kit (kit includes pliers, number and letters and first tube of ink), you are set for quite some time and tons of tattoos.

The ink will need to be repurchased as you run out. No repurchasing is needed for the equipment unless you loose some of the numbers or letters.

Livestock registries require tattoos in registered animals

Many breed registries require tattoos, since a tattoo is permanent. Sad to say, some people are not above giving false information about their animals.

Tattoos are a way to keep people honest and keep information accurate. Granted, nothing is “cheater proof” but tattoos are pretty close.

unreadable tattoo on goat ear
Believe it or not, there is a tattoo here. This is a registered Boer doe of mine named Scout and this ear should read F32. I have a terrible time reading this tattoo, usually I can only faintly see part of the F. The ear being black makes reading any tattoo that much harder.

Cons of tattoos: hard to read

  • Takes more time to do a good tattoo than put in a tag
  • Must grab the animal to read the tattoo
  • Mistakes would be permanent
  • Poorly done tattoos are not legible

Tattoos take longer to put in than a tag

Tattoos take a little longer to put in than a tag. There are two aspects to consider here: putting in the tattoo and redoing the numbers in the tagger for the next animal.

Steps to make a great tattoo:

  1. check the numbers/letters before you tattoo (punch a piece of paper)
  2. rub plenty of ink on the ear
  3. punch in the tattoo
  4. rub more ink in on top.

Use the tube of ink, not the roll on. We have found that the roll on does not have enough pigment to do a good job, use the tube. (Note: wear old clothes, this is a messy job.)

Making easy to read tattoos is doable

Is all this extra ink and mess really necessary? No, if you want a faint, hard to read tattoo do whatever you want.

If you have your sights set higher, like on a bold, easy to read tattoo then yes, you do need to take the time to do it right.

Remember it only needs done once, do it right.

You must restrain animal to read the tattoo

The main downside to tattoos is that the animal must be held still to read the numbers.

If the animal has a big ear and the tattoo is super clear you might be able to read it from a few feet away.

This will require the animal holding still and you having good eyesight!

We had a few Jerseys with really easy to read tattoos. But keep in mind, that is a big light colored ear with black ink on a calm cow.

Tattoo mistakes would be permanent, too

The second negative is that mistakes would be permanent. Thankfully, we have not messed up a tattoo (so far).

Why? Because we take our time and punch the tattoo through paper first to make sure it reads the way you want it to read.

Fixing a mistake in the tattoo pliers is easy, in the ear, not so much. Use the paper.

Poorly done tattoos are not legible

Sadly, you can put in a tattoo and not be able to read it.

How does this happen? It could simply be dark ears, so there is less contrast between the ink and the skin. The tattoo is good but it is still hard to see.

The other option is not enough pigment in the tattoo to begin with, meaning a poorly done tattoo.

Take your time and use plenty of ink to make a bold and clear tattoo.

You can use both tags and tattoos

Putting in both tags and tattoos would give you the best of both worlds: a permanent method of identifying your animals with the ease of just looking at the animal to get the information.

Obviously, doing both will take longer, but it is the best way to ensure proper identification of your stock for the life of the animal.

If you are interested, we get our tags from Premier 1. We have used the Q-flex 1.5, this is the tag in the video, but we are switching to a larger size for the ewes so the tags are easier to read in the field.

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