Tats & Tails, Part 2: The Art of Tattooing a Calf

Our box of tattooing supplies: pliers, ink and number & letter sets.

So, last week I wrote about pulling tails and now this is about sticking ears with lots of little needles.  Seems awfully mean, doesn’t it?  But the calves seem to be such tolerant, forgiving little souls….thank goodness!  The ADCA requires either a tattoo or an ear tag for identification purposes on all registered animals.  I don’t like the look of ear tags, and they do occasionally get ripped out, tearing a big gash through the ear.  So we’ve chosen to do tattoos on our calves.

I clean Trixie’s ear thoroughly with a disinfectant teat wipe.

Tattoo Protocol

There is a “normal”, accepted system for tattooing cattle, which the ADCA recommends using.  There are different size tattoo pliers that take varying numbers of characters, so you can decide what specifically works best for you.  Your tattoo number should start with a letter(s) that is an initial for your farm name or herd prefix.  Next comes the calf’s number, as in whether it was the 2nd, 5th, or 10th calf born on your farm that year.  Last is the year’s code letter…yes, there’s a chart showing what letter of the alphabet is assigned to each year.  This year, 2011, is “Y”.

Jeff loads the pliers with the tattoo letter & numbers.

So, this is how I work our tattoo “system”.  We got a small pliers that takes 5 characters in it…I think it’s one that’s usually considered a goat size.  I use HR for the farm letters on all of them.  I have 2 digits for the calf number, so I decided to just keep going consecutively instead of repeating the same few numbers each year, since we have a small herd.  So Keira was our first born here, so she’s 01, BoPeep was born next & she’s 02, and coming up to this year, Hershey was our fifth calf ever so he’s 05, Ebony’s 06, etc.  That leaves one space for the year letter.  So when you put that all together, we tattooed Ebby with HR06Y…last Saturday…after pulling her tail.  And Trixie got hers, as assigned by the breeder when they sent in her registration for us.

Needles inked up & ready to go.

Tattoo Process

First, we load the pliers with the appropriate letters & numbers.  They’re all backwards, of course, when you look at them & need to be loaded in reverse order, so it can be a bit confusing.  We always punch a piece of paper with it first to make sure we got it right.  The calf needs to be haltered & tied up close, so they can’t move their head very much.  It’s important to first clean the inside of the ear where you’ll tattoo.  You’ll need to check how far from the bottom edge of the ear your pliers reaches & make sure you’re between the ridges…prepare that flat area of skin.  I usually use a disinfectant teat wipe because I have them right there in the parlor, but an alcohol pad will do, too.  You just want to get off all the wax & crud, so keep switching spots on your cloth/wipe until it comes clean.  Then you’re ready to proceed.

Jeff puts ink between the lower ridges of Trixie’s ear.

Now comes the messy part!  It’s best to wear some gloves, but if you don’t have any cuts & you’re careful & clean up well right away…..well, I haven’t ended up with any unfortunate tattoos myself yet.  You have to smear some of the ink on the tips of the needles, which is easiest done with a paper towel.  Then smear a bit of ink on the ear where you cleaned it.  Now carefully line up the pliers where the tattoo will go.  With ours, we can squeeze part-way to hold it in place without the needles poking yet.  Then quickly & firmly squeeze down so the needles penetrate the skin well…and be ready to move your hand along with the calf’s head movement.  You don’t want the calf to rip her ear out of the pliers & end up with a smeary, unreadable tattoo…you want a clean release.  Immediately take the ear between your thumb & forefinger and rub over the area for about 15 seconds to work the ink into the punctures.

The pliers is lined up & ready for the squeeze…some don’t give a big reaction, but be ready for it.

That’s really all there is to it!  Then you just clean everything up with warm, soapy water.  If momma cow is one who has a thing for licking/sucking on ears, you’ll want to keep them separated until the ink dries.  If you separate overnight for milking anyway, evening is a good time to do the tattooing & by morning it will be dry.  We were able to turn Ebby & Trixie right back out with the herd, and there were just a few green spots here & there on the others later in the day.  Just leave it alone until it heals & all the extra ink gets worked off.  The offense will be forgotten well before then.

I rub the ink into the punctures while Jeff starts cleaning up the equipment.

So now you know what you need to know about tattooing & DNA samples.  Don’t be afraid to put it to use.  Our first attempt at tattooing didn’t turn out great…Jeff was too tentative on the “squeeze” part.  It’s a learning process…but one you can master!

It’s just one more part of being a Dexter owner.

1 thought on “Tats & Tails, Part 2: The Art of Tattooing a Calf

  1. Hmm, that sounds like something we could manage . . . Thanks for the tutorial.


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