Sky King Ranch

Tips on Beef Cattle Identification

     There are several methods of animal identification. Below are some tips for effective use of six methods: tattoo, ear tag, freeze brands, hot brands, paint brands, and electronic identification. For more detailed information on numbering systems and identification procedures, contact your extension livestock agent.

A. Tattoo - If done properly, the most effective and most permanent method of identification. Required by most breed registries. Tattoo should be placed in the mid-vein of the ear. Use same ear (left or right) for all animals in herd or put in both ears.

1) Clean area to be tattooed with chlorhexidine (a virucide-fungicide). Better than alcohol in preventing spread of warts (caused by virus).

2) Set numbers and letters for desired ID. Test on cardboard.

3) Rub area with paste or ink. Firmly clamp ear with tattoo pliers between ribs in ear. Avoid getting tattoo into hair area or on rib. (May use green or black paste or ink. Green fluorescent color works bets on animals with dark hide. Paste generally works better than ink.)

4) Rub the tattoo punctures full of paste/ink with your finger or toothbrush until bleeding stops.

5) Tattoo calves at young age, preferably at birth. Use smaller size tattoo digits for young animals and larger size for older.

6) Thoroughly clean equipment with clorhexidine.

- Pliers come in different sizes to accommodate different size digits. Can get rotary tattoo pliers. Cons: must catch animal to read - use some other visible method of ID. -

B. Ear Tag - Easy to read at a distance. Come in different sizes and colors.

One-piece tags do not transfer blood from one animal to another. Usually, these have breakaway applicator that results in fewer injuries to operate, if the animal slings head.

Two piece tags may have either a self-piercing button (avoids transfer of blood) or an applicator piercing button.

Be sure to use the correct pin on applicator for the button.

Insecticidal ear tags are available for fly control. Do not use them for ID.

A tool for removing ear tags is available and is very useful.

C. Freeze Brands - Sometimes called cryogenic branding. Uses supercooled branding irons to kill the melanocytes (hair pigment producing cells). If done properly, does not kill the hair follicle. White hair grows back. Works well on dark colored animals. If leave irons on longer, can kill both melanocytes and hair follicle to produce a scar or hairless brand, which allows freeze branding of white or light colored animals.

1) Place brands only on upper rump to avoid hide damage.

2) Clean area with comb to remove dirt, grit that dulls clipper blades.

3) Clip hair closely. Surgical blades work best.

4) Wash area thoroughly with alcohol to remove oils.

5) Irons come in different sizes and widths of numerals. Use smaller on animals up to weaning age and 4" x 5/8" on older animals. Use copper branding irons.

6) Can use dry ice and alcohol or liquid nitrogen. Leave irons on animal shorter time with liquid nitrogen, but timing is more critical and liquid nitrogen is more expensive. Dry ice and alcohol usually gives better, more consistent results. Use only denatured alcohol - at least 95%.

7) Place chunks of dry ice in insulated cooler. Heavy styrofoam cooler will work. Pour alcohol in to depth that allows liquid to completely cover the numeral area of branding iron. Place irons in liquid. When bubbling subsides, irons should be cold enough for use. Be sure there are plenty of chunks of ice in the liquid at all times. Replace iron in liquid after use and allow time for the iron to re-cool before using again.

    1. Hold irons on animals for recommended times. If animal moves so that the iron loses contact, allow extra time. Use a stopwatch. Times below are approximate. May need few more seconds on animals with thicker hides and a few seconds less on animals with very thin hides.
    2. Age of animal Contact Time in Seconds

      Dry Ice Liquid

      Alcohol Nitrogen

      Up to weaning (4-8 months) 25 15

      Yearling (9-18 months) 30 20

      Adult (Over 18 months) 35-40 25-30

    3. Can be done anytime. Best in fall or early spring to coincide with normal hair regrowth pattern.
    4. Use kerosene in a container to dip clippers in to clean them between uses.
    5. (Requires electricity for clippers.)

  1. Hot Brands – Produce a permanent, hair-free scar in the shape of the iron used. Inexpensive and require little preparation and little time to apply, although for best results should be clipped. Irons come in different sizes. Can get irons that are heated by wood, bottled gas or electricity. Timing is subjective but critical to getting good brands. Never brand wet animals.
  2. Brand only on upper hip area. (Freeze brands are preferred.)

  3. Pain Brands – Inexpensive irons that are dipped in a quick drying paint and applied to hip area or ribs of animal. Very effective means of visibly, temporarily identifying animals held for sale, shipment, or other purpose. Makes it easy to find a particular animal in a pen. Under-utilized for sale animals.
  4. Electronic ID – Consists of a transponder in a chip that is inserted under the skin of animal, a transponder in a bolus that is put in animal with balling gun or transponder encapsulate in a small plastic ear tag.
  5. (Very effective but very expensive. Some producers "fear" it because of trace-back potential. Will be used extensively in future and will facilitate information flow among segments of the industry.)

Written by Roger L. McCraw and Gary Gregory
Department of Animal Science
NC State University
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