SheepTags This year I’ve decided to change my sheep ear-tagging strategy. I used to agree with a lot of folks who like the simplicity of using one ear tag for everything- for the registry ID, scrapie ID, and general flock identification. If you get your flock initials from the registry before you sign up for a scrapie ID, the state allows you to use the same initials. This makes your life simple, and you can just use one tag. So, for example, our flock ID with the registry is KMC, and our flock ID with the state is WAKMC. So, I can, and have been getting by with a single tag that says, e.g. “WAKMC 0903”. But, the drawbacks to this system, I find, are several; so I’m going to change.

I don’t want to need binoculars…

I don’t like the size of the tags I’ve been using (the Easy Tag 2 from Premier), I can’t see the numbers from a distance. Most of my sheep aren’t friendly or tame. So then I have to use a Border Collie to help me catch and hold them, so I can get close enough to read their tags. Thus, I want to move to a bigger adult tag.

But I don’t want to put huge tags in lamb ears. Lamb ears are small, thin and soft. Big tags make their ears droop for a month or two (which is just an aesthetic thing, I admit). And bigger tags seem to make an enlarged hole in the ear, and sometimes look like they might tear out completely from their own weight. So, I’m convinced to start with small tags,and replace them with large tags later.

The conundrum of losing the single tag…

The next concern is, if a sheep loses its official tamper-proof scrapie tag, the law requires that you replace it with a new,  uniquely numbered scrapie tag. In fact, tag suppliers won’t print you a duplicate tag of an official scrapie tag that’s already been made once. That would be fine, except that now your sheep doesn’t have his registry ID on him anymore, and that’s a problem if he needs to be linked back to his pedigree ID.

I took the hair coat inspection training at the KHSI Expo this year, and that topic came up, because hair coat inspections require that the sheep has a tag that matches-exactly- what’s on his pedigree/registration form. And if you sell a registered animal, surely the buyer is going to appreciate the assurance of seeing that the ear tag matches the pedigree you’re giving them. So, ultimately, I think, you have to divorce the scrapie numbers from the registration numbers- there is no way to guarantee they’ll be the same throughout the sheep’s life.

Can you tell all your sheep apart, for sure?

If you have just a few sheep and you notice one has lost a tag, no problem, you still know which sheep it is. But I’m already starting to get to the point where I’m having some trouble differentiating a few of my sheep, and I know it’s only going to get worse the more I get. Even with Katahdins that have so many color variations and markings, still, you get a lot of all-white sheep and all-tan or all-brown sheep that look alike. If you notice that two similar-looking sheep have both lost their ear tags, uh oh, you’re in trouble! So, a backup tag is an important reassurance that no sheep will end up being a mystery sheep.

The tricky dual-number tag

There is another annoyance I’ve run across with the way some other people tag. And that is, I hate it when the back of the tag has different information than the front of the tag. I have a few purchased sheep where the back of the tag  has the scrapie flock ID number and the front of the tag has the sheep’s individual number- both four-digit numbers. This always confuses me, because if I’m behind the sheep and note the number on the tag, then try to look that up in my Palm Pilot, of course I can’t find it, because it’s the flock ID. Argh! So then I have to jockey around and try to get in front of the sheep’s face, to see the other side of the tag, which is sometimes hidden by part of the ear and hard to view. Not ideal. There is room on even the smallest of tags to put the flock ID in small print above the animal ID, so I would always be in favor of this, to keep both sides consistent.

All sorts of information can be coded into tags

Premier’s print catalog has a great article on ideas for different tagging codes and systems. They suggest using tag colors to indicate year of birth, type of birth (single, twin, triplet), culls, and the sire; and tag placement (right or left ear) to indicate sex. They also suggest incorporating the year number into the tag numbers, e.g. have tag numbers start at 9001, for up to 999 lambs identified as being born in 2009.

Tag Switcheroo

Premier further proposes tagging young lambs in both ears with small tags, which you can later replace with larger tags when the animal is sold or kept for breeding. This way, fast-healing lambs heal nice holes in their ears, and you can later snip out small lamb tags and replace them with a new tag in the same clean hole. Lambs that go to slaughter technically don’t need a tag, but the small flock ID tag is nice for personal record keeping before you ship off the animal. Premier suggests not inserting an official scrapie tag until it’s required- when the animal is sold for breeding, or ages over fourteen months.

imageTag mania

I like Premier’s idea of using the secondary tag color to indicate birth type, but this starts to mean you have to keep a huge and unwieldy inventory of tags of different colors and duplicating numbers. That starts to add up in cost and hassle. I think for very large scale producers who have hundreds or thousands of sheep, they can’t go by print records to sort lambs for market. So they could benefit from encoding a lot more information into the tags, so they can sort just by tags alone. But for smaller producers, it’s much more desirable to be able to refer to your performance records before choosing replacement breeding stock and which animals will go to slaughter, so then not as much information needs to be in the tags.

My final choice of a system

I decided what’s most important to me is to be able to identify at a distance what year the lamb was born, what sex it is, and which is its flock ID (the ID that matches its registration and pedigree). And I want a two-tag system for backup identification. The scrapie number, which could change over the animal’s life if a tag is lost, is of less interest to me, it just needs to be present in all adult animals and traceable in your records. So, I’m going to start with two small tags- one year-colored flock ID tag in the “sex” ear (for me, right for girls, left for boys); and one small gray scrapie tag in the other ear.

For animals sold or retained for breeding, I’ll replace the small colored flock ID tag for a bigger colored tag one later on, so I can read it easier. The small gray scrapie tag can stay there, and if it’s lost, I’ll just replace it with a new one and note the number change in my records. The only time I’ll be reading scrapie tags is if the main flock ID tag gets lost and I need to figure out which sheep it is, and when my scrapie inspections happen. So I don’t mind if the tag is small and hard to read.

I double-checked with the state vet office, and it’s ok to use the same number on two tags on the sheep, as long as one is an official scrapie tag, and the other tag is not (the second tag is called a “producer tag”). So, at least I’ll start out with lambs having the same number on both tags, for simplicity. I’m starting my numbers with zero this year, for 2010. This system is nice for when you are looking at records in print, to tell at a glace the year of birth when there is no tag color to look at. So, the first lamb born in the year will get two tags, the scrapie one will say “WAKMC 0001” and the colored producer tag will say “KMC 0001” (which will also go on the registration form) and they will increment from there. This numbering scheme has the added advantage of being able to tell birth order in a lamb crop, so at a glance you know which ones are youngest or oldest if their births were spread out.

I hope I’ve thought through this system enough to be happy with it for the years to come, so I don’t have to change again and confuse myself! How do you prefer to tag your ruminants?