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Tattoo/Herd ID

Permanent identification starts with a successful tattoo. Don’t run the risk of having an illegible tattoo by using an improper technique.

Download the Tattoo Techniques Fact Sheet


Proper identification at birth and legible tattoos are essential to maintaining accurate parentage and production records of Hereford cattle. A readable tattoo is also a requirement for registering an animal with the American Hereford Association (AHA). Hereford breeders were the first to adopt the ear tattoo as a requirement for registry.

Tattooing can be done any time before registering, although it’s best done when the animals are young. It is recommended to tattoo calves before 3 months of age.

The younger you tattoo a calf, the more legible the tattoo will be. The tattoo will grow as the calf gets older, making it easier to read.

Here are some steps that can be taken to help ensure a legible tattoo.

Proper equipment

Success starts with having the necessary tattooing equipment. Before beginning, a breeder should have a complete set of number and letter characters, if used. Sets of tattoo characters have one of each number (0-9) or letter (A-Z), so you may have to purchase more than one set. Tattoo equipment can be purchased from a livestock supply dealer.

Remember that a tattoo can have a maximum of eight characters (digits and/or letters) applied in a straight line.
There are a variety of different types of tattoo pliers on the market. Some pliers have revolving heads and will hold two different tattoos at once.

You’ll need a rag or a sponge and some rubbing alcohol to clean out the ear before you apply the tattoo.

Tattoo ink, green or black, is critical in getting a readable and permanent tattoo. With the aid of a toothbrush, the ink can be worked into a fresh tattoo easily.

A good working chute is also critical to a legible tattoo. The chute should restrain the animal from making quick head movements. The only stress on the animal during the tattooing process comes from poor restraint. For a readable tattoo to happen, the animal must hold still and be kept from moving its head.

Ready to begin

Once you have the calf in the working chute, check your records and establish the tattoo that will identify the calf. Place the corresponding digits in your pliers. Checking the tattoo on something like a piece of cardboard or an old feed sack is recommended. Otherwise, you run the risk of incorrectly tattooing the calf.

Check to make sure that all of your digits make an even perforation. One common mistake breeders make is not throwing away dull, broken or hair-matted characters. Such digits do not allow for deep penetration into the ear tissue.

Cleaning the ear and ridding it of all wax and dirt is the next step. To really do a good job, you need to clean out that ear with alcohol. You can’t get a tattoo to take with all the wax and dirt that is normally in the ear.

The ear should be dry before moving on to the next step — applying ink. AHA recommends tattooing the animal in the upper two-thirds of the lobe, reserving the lower third of the right ear lobe for the Bangs tattoo. Tattoos in either ear can’t exceed eight characters in length.

The Association also strongly advises that breeders place the tattoo in both ears to enhance the chances that a complete tattoo identity can be established.
Make sure that the tattoo is stamped in the center of the ear, close to the head, not the tip or the end of the ear.

Tattoos should be placed where the skin is lightest in color and free from hair. Be sure to avoid ribs or cords in the ear, as placing the tattoo in one of these ribs means a poor tattoo as well as an excessive flow of blood.

Before tattooing the animal, rub the ink in with a toothbrush or your thumb. By doing this, the ink will more likely be carried into the new tattoo.
When ready to proceed, place the ear between the jaws of the pliers. It’s important when clamping the pliers to use the right amount of pressure.

Close the jaws quickly and firmly and release quickly to avoid tearing the ear. Use enough pressure that it pierces the skin, but don’t go so deeply that it bleeds profusely.

The only way to stop an ear from bleeding after the use of too much pressure is to reapply ink. Put on more ink and use that toothbrush to get the ink down in those perforations. The ink helps the blood to coagulate.

Make sure that the ink is worked thoroughly into the tattoo to ensure a legible and permanent tattoo mark. When the tattooing process is finished, clean the characters to remove all hair, dirt and blood. This is also the time when you should throw away and get replacements for the ones that are dull.

When to tattoo

There are advantages and disadvantages to tattooing at birth or the alternative, waiting to tattoo calves as a group.

Max Stotz, Star Lake Cattle Ranch, Skiatook, Okla., has tried both, but prefers to tattoo at birth. “We find we have less human errors and don’t miss calves if we tattoo at birth,” says Max. “You must get that tattoo close to the inner ear and make sure it is not too far out or on the ribs.”

Bob and Jami Goble, Ridgeview Farms, Alto, Mich., prefer to tattoo calves at weaning in the fall. “We feel since the calves are older the tattoo looks better and continues to look good,” says Jami. “Not to mention we do not turn green everyday for three months while we are calving, and mother cows are not breathing down our backs.”

Imperfect tattoos

The Association recommends checking all tattoos at weaning or any time an animal is in the chute. Tattoos are not  always perfect. Two frequent causes of imperfect tattoos are poor technique and, for breeders calving during the cold months of January and February, frozen ears.

Gobles have been able to minimize the number of frozen ears through management practices.

Common imperfections include:

  • Not applying enough pressure with tattoo pliers to make a good enough imprint.
  • Not applying enough ink into the fresh imprint.
  • Tattooing animals at an older age results in small, hard to read tattoos.
  • Accuracy of letters and numbers loaded in tattoo pliers is paramount, so you should always double check.


Establishing a herd ID system

Before tattooing, an effective and well-planned herd identification system must be established. This system should benefit the producer and make herd recordkeeping easier.

Depending on a breeder’s needs, a tattoo can reflect several different things. The tattoo can refer to the year the calf was born or the offspring’s parents or relate a number in a sequence as to when the calf was born.

Some Hereford breeders use this simple system. The first number in the tag is the month they were born; and the remaining numbers are the order they were born in. If a calf is the 15th calf born in February, its tag number is 215 followed by the current letter year.

The international letter code system, where a letter represents the year a calf was born, has become popular worldwide. E is the letter producers are using to represent 2017. The letter for 2016 was D and calves born in 2018 will be Fs. With this system the letters I, O, V and Q are not used.

Breeders need to develop a tattoo system that fits their needs, depending on how important the sire, dam, or the relationship of age between calves is to them.