Livestock Identification For Different Animal Species

Want to take your herd management to the next level? Here are some tips for applying permanent identification for your livestock.

by Anna O'Brien
PHOTO: Mabel Amber/Pixabay

You very well may have names for all the livestock on your farm. But if you want to sell an animal, get health papers in order to travel across state lines or have your herd tested for reportable diseases, you’ll need more than a friendly moniker.

For traceability and public health, it’s a good idea for your animals to have what’s called a form of permanent identification. the USDA-APHIS establishes rules for permanent livestock identification, which varies based on the species.

Let’s take a closer look at options for your farm.

Here are some tips for getting started with stocker cattle.


Tattoos and brands may come to mind as the most obvious forms permanent of livestock identification. Although some may fade over time, tattoos and brands typically stay readable and reliable, and they won’t get lost.

A common type of tattoo in female cattle is the brucellosis vaccine tattoo. Brucellosis is a bacterial disease that used to ravage the U.S. cattle industry, causing abortions and other reproductive losses.

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The USDA worked to start to eradicate the disease in cattle in the 1940s and developed a vaccine. (Although the disease still circulates in wildlife in the western U.S., these efforts mostly eliminated it from cattle.)

Farmers with a large breeding herd should consider vaccinating their heifers between four and 12 months of age. This vaccine also goes by the names Bang’s vaccine (Brucellosis used to be called “Bang’s Disease”) and “calf-hood vaccine.” Only a USDA-accredited veterinarian can administer the dosage.

Each animal gets an official tattoo and metal ear tag after receiveing a brucellosis vaccine. Both of these counts as permanent ID and include numbers unique to each heifer.

Speaking of ear tags, although there are many kinds on the market, and any will do for your own personal herd identification, authorities only consider certain ear tags “official.”

USDA-APHIS states that, “The official ear tag must be tamper-resistant and have a high retention rate in the animal.” You can find descriptions of such tags on their website.


As with cattle, ear tags and tattoos are common methods of permanent identification for small ruminant livestock. Many flocks participate in the National Scrapie Eradication Program (NSEP).

Scrapie, a transmissible spongiform encephalitis like mad cow disease but specific to small ruminants, is still present in the U.S. But the country is working to eradicate it.

Through a national identification program, the USDA can locate and identify any animal positive with the disease and track it in order to control an outbreak. This is critically important for proper epidemiological control on a large scale.

When a flock is part of the NSEP, the premises receive a special set of unique, official ear tags .These permanently record the animal’s information for its lifetime.


The most common method of permanent identification for pigs is the ear notch. Done shortly after birth by the farmer with a tool called, not surprisingly, an “ear notcher,” this is a numbering system based on the location of each notch.

To get an idea of the system, take a look at the diagram on page two here. Ear notches in the right ear signify the litter number. Notches in the left ear signify the individual’s number.

Want to raise pigs? Here’s what you’ll need.


Wing bands and leg bands are the most commonly used forms of permanent ID in poultry. Sold commercially, they typically utilize a number system.

Some farmers prefer leg bands. Wing bands can become too tight as the bird grows if not properly placed and can be hidden by feathers.

No matter what species you have, keep in mind this singly important tip. Ensure every animal has a unique number on your farm. Accidental duplicates can lead to a lot of confusion and mistakes.

Also know that a systematic identification system on your farm greatly increases your quality (and ease) of record keeping.

Other, more unique methods of permanent ID exist, such as electronic ID (microchips).

You can also take nose prints. Just like our human fingerprints, each ruminants’ nose print is unique and can be used for official identification purposes. Nose prints also make some aesthetically pleasing patterns!

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