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Livestock Ear Tags vs Tattoos: Which is Better for Your Agribusiness?

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

Ear tags for livestock

Livestock ear tags and tattoos play an integral role in animal identification and disease traceability. These two animal identification methods are widely used in communal and commercial farms across the globe. Other methods of livestock identification include branding, ear notching, painting, and the use of microchips.

So, which is better? Livestock ear tags or tattoos? In this article, we’ll examine the pros and cons of livestock ear tagging and tattooing as essential farm management practices. We’ll also detail the steps to follow when tagging or tattooing your livestock. Let’s start with the basics.

What is an Ear Tag?

An ear tag, also known as an animal identification tag is a small piece of metallic or plastic ear attachment meant for identification purposes. The tag bears the animal identification number, letter, or alphanumerical. The animal identification ID number is usually used to indicate sex, sire, problem, date of birth, and other crucial information about the livestock.

Tags are fixed onto the livestock ears using a special pair of pliers also referred to as an applicator. You can buy ear tags and their applicators from farm equipment dealers or online marketplaces.

Federal and state ear tags are supplied and regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, APHIS.

Types of Animal Ear Tags

Ear tags differ depending on shape (button-shaped or flag-shaped), size, color (yellow, blue, red), and material (plastic or metallic). Currently, ear tags are classified as electronic or non-electronic.

In a move to enhance animal disease traceability, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is engaging the public to approve Radio Frequency Identification RFID ear tags to be the only legitimate form of cattle identification for interstate movement.

How to Tag Your Livestock

The process of applying ear tags to livestock is quick and simple and you can do it yourself. Indeed, you can follow the manufacturer’s directions and apply the tag appropriately. That said, you should ensure that you choose the appropriate tags for the animal. In addition, ensure that you abide by the county, state, and national animal identification guidelines, especially if the livestock will be moved across states. Below are the steps you should follow when tagging your animals.

  1. Assemble the tools Have in place the instruments needed for applying ear tags. These include ear tags, an applicator, disinfectant, and gloves. Also, ensure the tag have information that you want to capture including sire, sex, date of birth, and so forth.

  2. Catch and restrain the animal You should restrain the animal to avoid getting injured or applying the tag wrongly. Small livestock such as calves, goats, and sheep can be held and tagged by a single person. Be careful with newborn calves because their mothers are overprotective and might gore you. Perhaps, you can use a calf cage to tag newborn calves without getting gored. For bigger animals, use a halter, nose lead, or head gate to restrict head movement.

  3. Determine where to apply the tag Tags shouldn’t be applied too far inside the ear. This site has thicker tissue and might hold the tag tightly resulting in infections such as necrosis. Similarly, tags placed on the extreme exterior part of the ear are likely to be ripped out or snagged. The appropriate location should be between the ribs in the middle one-third of the ear.

  4. Disinfect Always disinfect the applicator and site for the tag by wiping it with 70% alcohol or any other disinfectant before starting to apply the ear tag. This way, you will prevent germs from getting into the pierced site.

  5. Tag application Once you have everything set, it is now time to apply the tag. Note that if you apply the tag correctly, you will avoid issues such as ear infections or the tag falling off. Moreover, a rightly placed tag eases livestock identification. To apply the tag correctly, ensure the parts of the ear tag and applicator are intact and function as required. An ear tag has two parts; the male and female portion. The male part of the ear tag, also known as the stud is the visual panel while the female part is the button. On the other hand, the jaws of the applicator should be correctly aligned to give the best results. And so, you should clamp them to ascertain whether they are aligned properly. With the applicator over the tagging area, place the male portion on the back and the female portion on the front part of the ear. Position everything correctly then press firmly and release the applicator to tag the animal. A sharp sound (clink) will be produced as the two portions of the ear tag join. Now remove the applicator and confirm that the two portions of the tag are interlocked.

  6. Watch the tags After applying the tags, you should keep an eye on the ears of marked animals to identify, prevent or treat problems such as swelling, pain, discharge, or tissue death. Please consider removing the tag to treat the wound if the swelling, discharge, or pain persists.

How to Maintain the Ear Tag Applicator?

The applicator should be properly cleaned before and after use. It should also be sanitized using an antiseptic or a disinfectant. Keep in mind that sharing ear tag applicators among a group of livestock can easily spread bacterial, fungal, and viral diseases.

Pros and Cons of Livestock Ear Tags


  • Ear tags provide an effective way of identifying the livestock. Non-electronic tags are easily visible by the naked eye while electronic tags IED or RFID store critical information about the livestock. RFID provides automated reporting on animal movement which aids in animal disease traceability.

  • The process of applying ear tags is quick and simple. Farmers can do it for themselves.

  • Simple non-electric tags are affordable and might not require trained personnel to apply. Some cost as little as $10.

  • If fixed properly, ear tags can last long enough till the livestock is sold.

  • Ear tags are available for most livestock including cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs

  • Blank ear tags are available for the farmer to write whatever they wish.

  • You can acquire a wide variety of ear tag sizes and colors


  • Wrongly applied ear tags can result in tissue problems, infections, or severe pain.

  • Tags are considered a semi-permanent identification method because they can break or can come out accidentally or by intention.

  • Metallic ear tags are associated with infections in dairy cattle and goats.

  • The applicator must match the brand of tags.

  • Some jurisdictions require that ear tags to purchased annually.

Important information about ear tag color

  • The blue color is used by the USDA (at least for the identification of sheep and goats). So, don’t use it.

  • Certain ear tag colors are easier to read and identify than others. Usually, lighter tag colors such as pink, orange, yellow, etc. are easier to read on the animal than dull colors

  • You do not need to change the color of your ear tags; you can use the same color for ages and all animals in your flock.

What Is a Livestock Tattoo?

Livestock tattooing is the practice of placing permanent marks on the skin of farm animals primarily for identification. A pair of livestock tattoo pliers is used to embed numbers or letter marks on the animal’s skin. A tattoo ink is then applied before puncturing marks. This ink remains visible even after the wound heals. Ear tattooing is regarded as an easy and reliable permanent identification method. According to CALS, tattooing is the favorite permanent identification technique for goat breed associations.

Requirements for Livestock Tattooing

You will need tattoo pliers and ink, disinfectant, numbers, or letters (used to pierce the skin and leave the needed mark). You might require gloves and a halter as well.

Steps to Tattoo Livestock

1. Restrain the animal

Restrain the animal. Smaller animals such as kids and calves are held by hand but the large ones need to be restrained using a halter.

2. Identify the site for tattoo

Locate an appropriate site for the tattoo. If tattooing the ear, ensure you avoid piercing the veins. For goat breeds with small ears, you can consider tattooing the tail web.

3. Clean

Disinfect the site for the tattoo using a clean cloth or cotton wool dipped in rubbing alcohol. Ensure you clean all the wax to get the desired results.

4. Applying tattoo ink

Apply ink generously on the site for the tattoo. You should ink an area larger than the tattoo pliers. Also, stick to the part of the ear without too much hair.

5. Place the tattoo

Confirm the that animal is restrained and place the tattoo plier in the right position. Avoid piercing the veins as this will lead to bleeding and result in a low-quality tattoo. Then clamp the pliers to puncture the ear. Unclamp, lift, and remove the pliers.

6. Apply more ink

Check the piercings and apply more ink into holes to get a visible and long-lasting tattoo.

7. Clean and disinfect the tools

After you’re done, clean and disinfect the tattoo pliers for the next use. This way, you will minimize the chances of infecting the next batch of animals.

Pros and Cons of Tattoos


  • Tattoos are permanent identification marks that last a lifetime, a reason why it is used by most livestock registries.

  • They are quick, simple, and reliable when compared to other permanent identification techniques such as branding.

  • Tattoos can be used singly or together with other identification methods.

  • Tattoos are appropriate for all livestock.

  • Tattoo application tools can be used for a lifetime


  • Tattoos are unobtrusive and might not be easily visible.

  • Tattoos work well with some specific animal colors

  • Infection may if the tools are not properly cleaned

Similarities Between Ear Tags and Tattoos

  • Both are animal identification techniques

  • The tools and the procedure used to apply ear tags and tattoos are almost similar.

  • Both are quick and simple methods of animal identification.

  • In most cases, tags and tattoos are applied on the ear of the animal.

  • Both techniques are approved by the US Department of Agriculture and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

  • Both methods involve piercing the skin.

  • Well done tag and tattoos are easy to read

Differences Between Ear Tags and Tattoos

Ear tags

  • Tags are conspicuous, easily visible, and readable

  • Tags are semi-permanent animal identification method

  • Are metallic or plastic object containing the identification number is attached to the ear of the livestock Identification

  • Tags are conspicuous, easily visible, and readable

  • Metallic ear tags have been associated with infection, especially in dairy cattle

  • Ink is not used during the tagging process

  • Tags: can accommodate over 15 numbers or letters and are good for keeping records

  • In case of a mistake, you can choose a different location and allow the mistakenly done site to heal.

  • Not suitable for some kinds of livestock such as horses, donkeys, dogs, cats, etc


  • Tattoos are a permanent livestock identification method

  • Numbers or letters are punctured on the skin of the livestock

  • Tattoos are inconspicuous and you have to hold the animal to read the marks

  • Tattoo ink is inactive and has no documented effect on the animal

  • Not suitable for some kinds of livestock such as horses, donkeys, dogs, cats, etc.

  • Appropriate for many kinds of livestock

  • Ink is used for tattooing

  • Tattoos may not exceed 7 numbers or letters per ear thus used for registration purposes

  • Mistakes leave a permanent mark on the skin of the livestock.

Livestock Ear Tags Vs Tattoos: Which one should you choose?

When choosing an animal identification method, you should consider the need you plan to solve. As mentioned above, ear tags are appropriate for keeping personal records. This is because they can fit over fifteen numbers or letters which can capture details about sex, sire, date of birth, and more. On the other hand, tattoos are preferred by livestock registries due to their durability. Note that ear tags might not be appropriate for some animals.

That said, ear tags and tattoos are both quick, simple, and reliable animal identification methods. Each of these methods has it pros and con as listed above. Your choice between the two solely lies in what you intend to achieve.

Want to keep track of your animals? Take a look at Farmbrite for your Livestock record keeping. You can store tag numbers, EID, or tattoo numbers in Farmbrite to help you keep track of your animals. Try today for free.


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