Beef Cattle Identification

Purpose of Beef Cattle Identification

Identification is important in beef cattle herds for several reasons: effective record-keeping, performance testing, reproductive records, treatments and routine herd health work, and federal and state regulations. Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) assures the consumer of a safe and wholesome product; identification and written records help ensure adequate meat withdrawal times and disease containment. The Federal Traceability Rule requires that cattle moving interstate (across state lines) must be officially identified. All of these reasons make identification essential. The Florida Cattle Identification Rule requires that cattle 18 months of age or older must be tagged with official individual identification.

Evaluating ease of calving, weaning weight, average daily gain, reproductive efficiency, age, and health, helps beef cattle producers make some decisions about the animal. This makes animal identification the first step in improving beef cattle production on the ranch. Only after cattle are identified can the second step— establishing breeding and calving seasons— be considered.

Numbering System

A simple system that has been satisfactory for many producers is to number calves consecutively within a year. Tattoos or ear tags are used to identify every calf born within a given calving season. The first number (or letter) on the tag or tattoo usually designates the year of birth.

Using the first number to represent the year avoids starting with “0” except when starting a new decade. Heifers going back into the herd would be branded with the same number as the tattoo. Some producers identify the calf with the same number as the dam, but add an additional number to designate the year of birth for the calf.

Cow and Calf Identification

Cows can be identified in many ways: ear tags, tattoos, brands, or Electronic Identification (EID). The same number could be used for tattoos and brands.

In purebred operations, breed registries often require specific data be recorded on the day of a calf’s birth. Numbers should be assigned and record along with birth date, weight (especially for bull calves), sex, and dam number. Tattooing in addition to ear tags is recommended because it’s more permanent.


Hot Iron Branding

Hot iron branding can be used for both ownership and individual identification, and as opposed to freeze branding, works equally well on all cattle breeds. Number should be 6-inches with vents in the “6,” “8,” “9,” and “O.” The vents prevent “burn out” of the entire area. Hot irons can be heated for branding in a number of ways. Electric irons or regular irons heated with propane gas burner or wood fire are often used. Irons should be nearly red hot just before applying the iron. However, they should not be glowing red. The iron is pressed firmly for approximately 8 to 10 seconds. The iron is then removed. A good application will reveal a copper color. A dark or black color, which is burnt hair, indicates that the iron will need to be reapplied until a copper color appears. Clipping the area before branding allows better contact with the hide and reduces smoke.

Freeze Branding

Freeze branding is satisfactory for identifying cows with dark hair coats. The super cold iron applied to the hide kills the pigment-producing cells (melanocytes). New hair growth in the branded area will be white, forming the identification numbers. The advantages of freeze branding over hot iron branding are:

  • Less pain and damage to the hide.
  • Less equipment required for animal restraint.
  • Branded area will be easier to clip in the future (if necessary).

Some disadvantages of freeze branding are:

  • Dry ice, alcohol, or liquid nitrogen may be difficult to locate.
  • It only works on animals with dark hair.

Materials and Branding Procedure for Freeze Branding:

  • Branding item of copper, bronze, or alloy— 4 inches with 3/8 inch or larger face.
  • Hair clipper with surgical clipping blades
  • Insulated containers for coolant
  • Alcohol, acetone, or high-test gasoline plus dry ice (Liquid nitrogen can be used.)
  • Chute to restrain animal

Alcohol, 90% pure, is used most widely. Alcohol and dry ice are mixed to form a coolant, which is approximately -90 degrees Fahrenheit. Irons are completely submerged into the coolant. Irons are cold when large, fast-rising bubbles change to tiny, slow-rising bubbles. Cows are usually branded on a dipped area on the rump, quarter, or side. Before applying the brand, the clipped area is cleaned with a brush or cloth dipped in alcohol. The cold iron is then applied slowly and held firmly for 45-60 seconds. When the iron is removed, the brand area appears frozen and stiff. After thawing, the area becomes swollen, slightly red in color, and readable. In a matter of weeks, the branded area sloughs off, and white hair will appear within 30-60 days.


Tattooing is a fast, permanent, and a very reliable means of identifying cattle, but it cannot be read from a distance. Even when using ear tags, tattoos can be used in case an ear tag is lost. Tattoos should be used with other means of identification, such as brands, tags, or neck chains, so that the tattoo can be referenced if other numbers are lost or not legible.

When tattooing the ear is cleaned with a cloth to free it of wax. Then with the tattoo pliers (applicator), the numbers or letters are pressed into the ear between the ribs. The applicator must be pressed firmly to penetrate the ear as deeply as possible. The applicator is then removed and tattoo ink is rubbed into the punctured ear with a toothbrush. A well-placed tattoo is legible, permanent for the remainder of an animal’s life and can be used as a backup for all other identification.

Electronic Identification Systems

Electronic Identification systems (EID) are becoming more common. These systems use radio frequency to collect signals from devices attached to or implanted in the animals. They are beneficial since they can be used in dusty, muddy, and wet environments. EID systems do not replace the visual identification of cattle, but do provide fast and accurate identification of animals when linked to certain management databases. EID systems can significantly reduce manual data entry. Several different types of reader systems are available and function very well. The most common would be a simple wand reader with which you scan the animal’s EID and the wand stores that data or sends that information to a computer system/scale head. In situations that require large amounts of cattle being weighed often, a panel reader can be useful. Panel readers are mounted on chutes or gates and automatically log animals as they come through the working facility. Transponders (tags) can be either passive or active. Passive transponders are charged with energy from the signal received by the read antennae. Active transponders are charged by an internal power source which may also collect cow information such as animal activity. Communication between the antennae and transponder can be either a half duplex system, where the reader sends a signal and waits to receive another signal from the transponder, or a full duplex system, where the reader waits to receive information from the transponder while submitting a continuous signal. While there are many benefits of EIDs, there are some challenges as well. Tags need to be properly installed in order to work correctly. Some materials such as metal rails, motors, fluorescent lighting, and electric fences can interfere with the antennae’s ability to work properly. Failure of information read can occur due to mud, animal posture, excessive animal speed, and broken or missing transponders.

Official Identification

With the Federal Traceability Rule, cattle that are moving interstate (between FL and another state) must be officially identified and have a Certificate of Veterinary Inspection (CVI, “health certificate”). It is important that livestock producers transporting animal across state lines check with the destination state for what identification is accepted. Many states no longer accept tattoos or brands as official identification.

The Florida Animal Identification rule requires that all cattle, 18 months of age or older, be tagged with official individual identification. Cattle moving to approved tagging sites for tagging, directly to slaughter, and between pastures under normal ranching operations, without changing ownership, are exempted under the rule.

Cattle owners can apply official identification tags themselves or have their cattle tagged at an approved tagging site. A variety of official identification tags can be purchased through an animal health product supplier. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Uniform Eartagging System tags can be obtained, at no charge, through the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Official ear tags should have a US shield on the tag:

  • AIN is 15 digit “840” tag; EID tags will have this numbering. “840” is designated for USA.
  • National Uniform Ear tagging Series (NUES) will indicate the state that the tag was originally placed. These are usually metal tags and referred to as “brite tags”.
  • It is unlawful to remove official ear tags

These ear tags are required for:

  • All cattle 18 months of age or older
  • All dairy cattle
  • Cattle of any age used for rodeo, recreational events, shows and exhibitions (when moving across state lines)


Animal identification is an important management tool for livestock and an integral part of the federal disease control program. Animal welfare should be considered when choosing a method of identification and every effort should be made to use methods that cause less pain and distress for the animal.

For additional information, contact your local Extension Agent or Bridget Stice at or (863) 519-1048



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Posted: December 2, 2019

Category: Agriculture, Livestock

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