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Calf ID: 1st step is record-keeping

Ashley Cooper/Getty Images A Hereford beef cow and a calf, surrounded by other grazing cows, with yellow ear tags
EAR TAGS: If you are inexperienced with tagging, be conscientious about where you place tags within the ear. Properly placed tags will minimize discomfort for the animal, decrease risk of injury and have a better chance of remaining in the ear.
Beef Column: When it comes to cattle performance, you cannot measure what you do not know.

Every fall we talk about record-keeping and the importance of knowing how your cows are performing under your management and operation. However, this record-keeping starts when the calves are born.

Many lots of calves that show up to the sale barn without tags show room for improvement. Individual calf ID is important for any type of record-keeping system, including inventory, calving and performance records.

If you are inexperienced with tagging, be conscientious about where you place tags within the ear. Properly placed tags will minimize discomfort for the animal, decrease risk of injury and have a better chance of remaining in the ear. Also, have a plan to protect people around protective mother cows while tagging calves.

Systems for identification

There are many ways to identify calves and track performance, but it all starts with sticking a tag in a calf’s ear soon after birth and recording the animal’s new number, birthdate, dam and birth weight. The cow also needs her own identification tag. This can be as simple as tagging the calf with a preprinted tag with a single number going in chronological order as the calves are born.

However, there are other tagging systems that may be advantageous to tracking cow age if you retain your own replacement heifers, or may help with sorting pairs when it comes time to kick them to grass.

The seedstock industry has many numbering systems that may be favored by one breed association over another, but it really comes down to producer preference and if the system can be used across the board, regardless of whether a producer is raising commercial calves or purebreds. Here are some examples:

The first numbering system involves the year the calf is born and the numerical order in which it was born separated by a dash. For example, 11-4 is the fourth calf born in 2011; 9-110 is the 110th calf born in 2009.

The second numbering system involves three to four digits, with the first digit being the year the calf was born and the following digits being the numerical order in which it was born. For example, 803 is the third calf born in 2008. For calves born in 2020, a producer can choose to use place-holding zeros or leave the zeros off — 005 or 5 is the fifth calf born in 2020.

The third numbering system is much like the previous two, where year and calving order are used. However, instead of using a number for the year, a letter is used instead. There is a universal year-letter code that many breed associations use. This method may be beneficial if you have cows that are older than 10 years so numbers are not duplicated. For example, E010 (E10 or 10E) is the 10th calf born in 2017, and T010 (T10 or 10T) is the 10th calf born in 2007.

A table with international letter codes, based on birth year, used for cow identification

These systems can also be used in a combination. For example, F816 is the 16th calf born in 2018.

Benefits of identification

Using the tags as visual aids to help sort cattle can also be advantageous. One way to do this is to record the cow’s number on the calf’s tag to aid in sorting pairs and knowing which calves belong to which cows while out in the pasture. Some producers like to sort calves by sex and use different-colored tags for heifer and bull calves.

No matter the tagging system you use, identification of cattle is needed for proper record-keeping. When it comes to cattle performance and record-keeping, you cannot measure what you do not know. Having a tagging system that fits a producer’s wants and needs and ensures each calf is individually identified is a key first step in having sufficient and adequate records.

Cauffman is the Extension agriculture educator in Grant County, Wis. This column is provided by the University of Wisconsin-Extension’s Wisconsin Beef Information Center

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