Monday, April 15, 2024
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Don’t Ear Tag Your New Born Calves

Many cow-calf producers think it is sacrilegious to not ear tag calves at birth.   Most do it because they have always done it.   Several years ago, the PCC Discussion Group came up with several “Kooky Notions” that the members used to have.   Ear tagging calves at birth was one of those kooky notions.

I’m sure many of you are saying, “What’s wrong with tagging calves at birth?”  To begin with, each and every one of your cows knows which calf is hers – without an ear tag.   If you are a commercial rancher (not raising registered cattle), you are NOT getting paid to ear tag your calves.   I am not against putting identification ear tags in every animal – but it can be done when the calves are run through a chute for vaccinations, etc.   It does not have to be done within a few hours after birth.

This fellow is getting first hand experience with the dangers of ear tagging a new born calf.
This fellow is getting first hand experience with the dangers of ear tagging a new born calf.

There are at least four problems with ear tagging calves at birth.   First and foremost, it is dangerous.   Every year we hear about someone being seriously injured or killed while trying to tag a newborn calf.   How would you feel if someone in your family got hurt while tagging a newborn calf?

Second, ear tagging calves at birth disrupts the bond between a momma cow and her newborn calf.   This is a very critical time for a newborn calf.   Any outside interference does more harm than good.

Third, ear tagging calves sets you up to keep records on individual animal performance which will keep you from maximizing sustainable profit per acre.   For the past 40+ years, the status quo beef industry has been enamored with increasing individual animal performance.   This has created high-maintenance cattle that do not fit any environment outside of a feedlot.   Consequently, the result of focusing on individual animal performance is reduced profits.   I still believe most ranchers can double their profit per acre once they stop focusing on the wrong things.

Fourth, ear tagging calves at birth is very time consuming.   It takes a whole lot more time than 30 to 60 seconds per calf.   Tagging calves requires you to ride or drive to the cows and through the cows.   If you don’t go at least twice a day, you will not be able to catch the calves.   You must do this every day.   Even if you have a short 45-day calving season, you will have at least 90 trips to and through the cows.   Because tagging calves is time consuming, it will set the limit as to how many cows you can run.   The most profitable ranches are running 500 to over 1000 cows per man.   It would be impossible for these ranches to tag calves at birth.   They spend their time (and money) on things that increase their profits.

The time and money most producers spend on things like keeping individual animal records and ear tagging calves at birth could be used to improve grazing management via fences and water development.   This could easily double or triple your profits per acre.   You could be getting paid two or three times more for doing half as much work.   You could create a VERY profitable and sustainable business for your children and grandchildren.

I am often drawn into discussing this “kooky notion” at my speaking engagements.   Tagging calves at birth is a paradigm that most producers struggle to get away from.   For every reason people have given me to justify why they tag calves at birth, I have always been able provide an alternative.

HerefordCowandCalfPeople say they need to have an easy way to pair up cows and calves when going to summer pasture.   I suggest you move bred cows to summer pasture and allow them to calve in sync with nature on green grass.   Bred cows are much easier to handle, haul or drive than pairs.   All of the problems producers associate with calving will magically disappear when cows are calved in sync with nature.   You do NOT have to be there to see every calf born!   Also… any cattleman worth his salt can pair up cows and calves without ear tags.

Some might ask, “So how do we identify the cows that produce the dink calves?”   That’s easy… after separating the cows and calves at weaning, sort off the dink calves.   Turn those dink calves back out with the cows – and they will make a beeline to their mommas.   Ride out and bring in the dink pairs to be sold.

Would you be able to calve 500+ cows by yourself if every calf had to be ear tagged at birth?   No – but you could if you did not have to tag calves.   Mark Bowman, a PCC customer in Western Nebraska, once told me about an encounter he had with his dad who was over 80 years old at the time.   Mark was calving around 1200 cows in sync with nature.   His dad said, If I knew ranching could be this easy, I would still be doing it.

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Kit Pharo
Kit Pharo
is an industry leader in developing bulls on forage, and is internationally known as a successful rancher and businessman. In the mid 80s, Kit started out by leasing grassland and buying cows. In the beginning, he strived to build a herd that would wean bigger calves, but quickly learned that increasing weaning weights did not increase profit. Kit then changed his management approach to be profit-driven instead of production-driven, and carried-out management practices to reduce and eliminate expenses. At the same time Kit implemented ways to increase beef production per acre – compared to beef production per calf. Over the last 25 years, Kit has grown his ranch into a very profitable family corporation. From the first production sale of 7 bulls in 1990, Pharo Cattle Company now produces and markets over 800 forage-developed bulls every year. Kit Pharo advocates several no-nonsense ways to put profitability back into ranching and publishes a quarterly newsletter that is sent out to over 20,000 people.


  1. I agree with Kit and dont think calves in a commercial herd should be tagged at birth.

    I dont know but it seems like some of the responses to tagging at birth and the issues that crop up include objections that if working with mother nature are things you would want your livestock to be doing.

    Cows ferociously protecting their new born calves seems like something you would want especially in range cattle. Maybe consider adding to the cull herd cows or heifers that dont mother their newborn calves.
    Happy trails, Mike

  2. We run 2 herds together so cows have 2 diff irons. we need to be sure calves match up to cows prior to branding. we also use the opportunity to give Inforce 3 nasaly, Haven’t had a sick calf no matter what the weather in years. It pays! we get 750 pound calves at weaning!

  3. I’m curious then how you select good replacement heifers. If you don’t want to keep a heifer (that otherwise looks adequate) based on traits you don’t care for in her mother? What about tracing reputation calves (with carcass data) that you recieve a premium or guaranteed buyers for back to thier dam if you want to keep her daughters for replacement heifers? I suppose there is an argument for the labor/safety issues, but it seems information on individual animals and subsequent selection can be valuable for progressive producers who know how to use that information.

    Additionally, after tagging many many calves, I have never seen an issue with it interfering with bonding or health, although typically we were waiting a few days after birth and therefore were not going out twice a day. Furthermore, we didn’t tend to keep around the monster cows that tried to crawl in the pickup cab with you (or thier daughters).

  4. Well that’s all fine and dandy until you have heifers that calve and don’t claim their calf. Then pretty soon you have a few calves that you notice wandering around without a mother and are starving to death. And since you didn’t tag the calf when it was born you have no idea who the mother is. Even older cows will calve and either leave their calf or lose their calf. We don’t live in a perfect world where every cow is a “Grade A” mother. It’s well worth your time and effort to tag calves after birth in my opinion.

  5. You MUST tag at birth calves in organic herds, but if you fall calve thing increases frost bite also .. We need a better tag! My mom in law works for ytex but we use Richie tags but still need something better.

    • We need to convince the OG certifiers that herd management is same/similar to flock management and only the treated animals need identified or separated.

  6. I would think that only applies to commercial folks and anyone not collecting any data for EBV calculations. Any purebred herd will need ways to positively identify animals from birth.

    We raise sheep and one of the culling criteria is a ewe who will not allow us to catch, weigh and tag her newborn lambs on pasture without running off. I wish I could post a picture of a ewe carefully observing as we work with her lambs. If she loses interest because of our handling she’s a cull.

    • Agreed. With the sheep tagging is more important when selecting ewe lamb replacements. Better to keep that nice set or twins from a ewe who usually has twins than the slightly better single lamb from a ewe who usually has singles. I started ear notching right for twins, double right for triplets, and left for singles in case time is short or records/tags lost when selecting replacements.
      I don’t know why cows seem to have a much harder time counting to two than ewes. They seem to ignore a twin so often it may not be a benefit. But we do want to know who has the most easy keeping best behaving calves. But tagging newborns in the field can be dangerous. The first year after getting guardian dogs shortly before lambing was the only time I was butted, and by several ewes. They were hyper protective that year. Most ewes have now grown up with dogs.

      • We use EID tags and enter in birth weights and all ID info in the field as the ewes lamb. No problems with dogs but as you say all of the ewes have grown up with guardian dogs and we cull heavily on disposition. A ram that butts us a second time gets butchered, I don’t care how good his EBVs are! We use NSIP doe EBV data and use it as one of our selection tools but it is not the only one.

  7. I quit chasing newborn calves years ago. It is a good way to get hurt not to mention the potential damage to the calf. The ears are still tender, way to easy to damage them. I lost a lot less tags when tagging them when they are older. Some of the older cows that were tagged as newborns have a hole so big you have to create another hole to re-tag them.

    • Intersting, when we tagged lambs as older animals we lost far more tags and had shredded ears. By tagging at birth we lose fewer tags overall and the sheep seem to learn how not to get stuck in fences and rip the tags.

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