Every year I waffle on how I want to do my ear tags. Custom tags are expensive, so it’s right that I waffle. The eventual size I  prefer on my adult sheep is Premier’s size 5, because it’s readable from afar. But those tags are too huge to put on lamb ears, necessitating the use of smaller tags at birth; then replacing them with bigger tags at 60 days of age, using the healed-up hole created by the first tags. This scheme is most practical for readability; and also identifiability (if a lamb loses one tag, I still have the other to ID him until I get a replacement tag in). But it is least practical in cost, and labor; as re-tagging both ears in all the lambs is some effort. I’m about to order tags for this years’ lambs, so am revisiting the self-debate all over again.

Above-pictured are a couple of rams in the barn, with this year’s blue flock tag (made by Premier), and a white SFCP tag (the government freebies made by Allflex). Those blue tags- ugh! For one, this has to be Premier’s most unreadable color (and they do warn that the darker colors are less clear). I was disappointed in the quality of the laser printing, too. One side is more readable than the other, which tells me that they could be clearer on both sides, but that Premier let some poor printing go through. I didn’t realize it until I was putting the tags on, and needed them on, otherwise I would have returned them and asked for a re-do. The other drawback I find with the material Premier uses is that it’s slightly rough/matte, versus shiny like the Allflex tags (and like previous versions of Premier tags used to be). Outside in the weather, they manage to stay clean. But if sheep are in the barn for a few weeks, there is something about the combo of lanolin and hay dust and no rain that starts to grime-up the tag and make it unreadable. I can clean them by scraping them with a fingernail, but that’s obviously ridiculous.

I’ve considered only using one tag at birth, then double-tagging the lambs later. But I like the way the holes heal when they are incurred on a newborn lamb, plus newborns don’t appear to experience discomfort from tagging. Punching a hole in an older lamb’s ear definitely hurts! Plus, lambs do lose tags occasionally. If you only have a few lambs, it’s not a big deal to do a deduction exercise to confirm the identify of the tagless lamb and re-tag him. But once you get into the territory of many dozens of lambs, it would be a lot of work to figure out who’s who when one or two lambs are suddenly tagless. For people with large flocks who gamble on this, I question the quality of their record keeping. I’ve heard some people claim they keep backup photos of sheep in case of loss of identity. But, for heaven’s sake, 2/3 of our sheep are white and look identical. And, rifling through hundreds of photos to identify a tagless sheep seems undoable. So, then I question anyone with a large farm who relies on single tags in sheep: are they 100% confident in their records and identification system? I’m not comfortable taking that risk, I want to always be sure my pedigrees and performance data are attributed to the right animals. So, double-tagging at birth is it for me.

This last spring, I decided to save myself some money and order the free SFCP tags provided by the federal program. These are white and middle-sized: small enough to put on lambs, but not as big as the size 5 tags I like in adults. The freebies don’t come in any color or size choices. The advantage beyond these being free was that I only tagged that side of the head once, at birth. When I replaced the flock tag at 60 days, it made me a little less mentally crazy to only have to do one tag per lamb, and make sure the number matched the tag I was leaving in. If I replace both tags, it just takes a little more mindfulness, to ensure that the right number goes in both ears, both sides!

Yet another consideration is that the freebie Allflex brand tags come packaged in plastic dimple trays, which help keep the tags in numerical order, and the male/female halves together. Premier used to manufacture them semi-attached, so the male/female pairs were together. Now they semi-attach strings of males, and strings of females together. Is there anyone else out there who finds this crazy-making? It’s not so bad at lambing time, as you can carefully take tags out of the box in small batches, and have fewer to sift through. But, if you are going through a group of 100 lambs to re-tag them at sixty days, and have to rifle through 200 tag halves to try to find the matching pair, OMG. I’ve tried laying them out on a tray in order, but invariably, at some point, the tray gets knocked, and then the tags are in a huge jumble. This last time, I took the time to tape the individual pairs together ahead of time. Labor, labor. But, I do like the size and shape of Premier’s tags better, and they offer more color choices, and are less expensive than Allflex. So, there’s that.

But, all summer, fall and winter, I’ve cursed those tags. The white SFCP are crisply printed, but just a little too small to read from a distance. The blue tags, tho large, are just not contrast-ey enough. Normally I can photograph lambs from quite far away, but still be able to zoom in on the tags to read them. Not so this year, I had a lot of wasted photos where the tag was just a little too blurry or small to read. Plus, I find that when I approach a lamb to read its smaller SFCP tag, it causes me to have to get just a little too close, into the flight zone; then the sheep moves before I get a good glimpse.  So, I’ve convinced myself that whatever cost and labor savings I gained by using the free tags, I’ve lost with the daily annoyance of not being able to easily read them!

So this year, back to disposable small tags in both ears at first, and big tags in both ears at sixty days! Then I will be back to these glorious large-print numbers on both sides that I can read from almost anywhere!