Preamble to Identification Methods

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February 26, 2013 by Taylor Angus

Like many colleges, Missouri State University attends events such as career fairs, student conventions, etc. to recruit potential students, and share with the public all the different things that are available at MSU. Also like many colleges, MSU hands out little a trinkets and mementos to the people it talks to. What the William H. Darr School of Agriculture hands out to future agriculture students is a little ear tag for cattle that has the name of the university, and the school of agriculture along with some contact information. I use mine as a key-chain.

A while back I was talking to my old suite-mate, he was from Lee’s Summit, and he saw the ear tag attached to my room keys. He asked: “Is that an ice scraper?”, and, of course my natural reaction was to say “No, that’s an ear tag”. He looked a little taken aback, as he got a confused look on his face, and I remembered that he most likely has absolutely no clue what I’m talking about!

Within today’s beef industry, prices are encouraging producers to specialize in one breed. Feedlots are in want of cattle that are the same breed, the same conformation, and roughly the same age, because it greatly reduces the cost of feed when all of the calves grow at roughly the same rate. What this leads to, is a lot of cattle that look exactly the same. So it raises the question, “How do we tell them apart?”. There are a variety of ways to identify cattle, and ear tags are one of them.

Ear tags are essentially earrings. There is an applicator that producers use to tag their animals. It looks like a pair of pliers, one side of pliers has a metal clip that hold the tag, and the other a metal pin, on which a small rubber button is placed. On the tip of the button is a metal spear. The animal’s ear is then held between the pliers and squeezed shut. The metal spear pierces through the ear cartilage and catches in the tag to hold it in place. The tags we use have numbers written on them, however some people use letters or a combination of the two.

This may seem cruel to unknowing observer, but it is truly necessary to maintaining herd quality. We usually give our cattle their first tag a few hours after birth. This enables to know which baby belongs to which cow (because we make the babies’ tags the same as the mothers’) and also to differentiate it from the other babies. It also reduces the pain and trauma on the animal, because directly after birth, the ear cartilage and nerves have not yet been fully developed.

This is all well and good, but honestly, WHY on Earth would we want to pierce the ears of all of our cattle? And the answer to that is… what I will write about next week.

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