From branding to tattooing and everything in between, many methods for identifying livestock have been used over the years. The method with the most potential, though, arguably remains the humble cattle ear tag. It might not seem like there’s much to learn about them, but the truth is that new and old ranchers alike can benefit greatly from understanding the differences between the various kinds of tags available today.
The oldest, most reliable, and most widely used kind of cattle ear tags in use today are visual tags. These are simply basic plastic or metal tags used to identify individual animals in a herd via color and the number stamped or engraved upon them. Visual tags are referred to as such because their primary advantage is that their large size and distinctive features make them easy to read even at a distance, thus allowing ranchers to identify cattle without getting close.
Visual tags are not perfect, however. Dirt and debris may accumulate over time, reducing their readability. Under harsh conditions, visual tags can come loose and get lost entirely, leaving livestock without proper identification.
Increasingly popular in the world of cattle ear tags are radio frequency identification (or RFID) tags. In fact, RFID tags are so popular that USDA is currently making their use required for all cattle sales and transportations conducted across state lines.
What advantages do RFID tags provide over traditional visual tags? For one, they’re sturdier; notably, RFID tags are designed to withstand the consequences of being worn by an animal 24/7 and are meant to last the entire lifetime of said animal. More importantly, though, RFID tags can record precise and detailed records of an individual animal’s weight, fertility, medical history, productivity, and more. This not only gives farmers the ability to make decisions about how best to utilize their herd more accurately, but it also makes disease tracing more efficient, reducing the spread of animal-borne illnesses.
One of the newest and most advanced kinds of cattle ear tags is called “smart tags.” Incorporating more high-tech features into their design, smart tags come in different configurations offering different features, with some of the more notable additions including GPS technology (allowing ranchers to locate their cattle with pinpoint accuracy via satellite) and temperature sensors (providing ranchers with an early warning sign of potential health issues).
The downside of smart tags is how expensive they are and, what’s more, how delicate their components can be. Smart tags are still being refined to maximize field viability. Their use is not widespread, and thus they are not as proven as other kinds of tags.
For smaller livestock operations, standard visual tags can prove sufficient. For larger, more professional operations, however, RFID tags are all but indispensable. Until smart tag systems are more fully developed and made affordable, RFID tags will likely remain the standard for the foreseeable future.