Is Tagging Calves a Good Idea?

by Dallas Mount

calf tag

We need to constantly challenge the management practices we do on the ranch, to make sure they still make sense. As business management guru Edwards Demming (who lived in Powell, WY) said, “It is not necessary to change, survival is not mandatory.”

Since calving season is in full swing across most of cow country, I thought I’d challenge the common belief that we must tag our calves to be good managers. Sure, there are reasons why tagging calves makes sense. But it does come at a cost in labor, stress to animals and risk to the people. I’m not telling you not to tag, but rather challenging you to evaluate the practice.

I will start by relating an experience I had recently. I was facilitating a family ranch business meeting, there were some extremely important things that needed to be done to keep this large family business on track. Those involved had correctly identified these major issues that needed to be completed in the next few months. I asked what the value of getting these things done for the ranch business was. One member suggested $500,000 another said it could be $1,000,000; either way there was significant value at play. I sensed some apprehension by the family members that the things they identified would actually get done. I asked, “What is going to get in the way of making this happen?”. They said they were headed into an extremely busy time for the ranch. Calving, moving heavies, checking cows, tagging calves, etc. would consume them for the next 2-3 months.  

Then I inquired, “What would happen if you didn’t check a single cow, and didn’t tag a single calf? Would they all die? How many might you save by being there? What would be the economic cost to the business, of not doing these things that are distracting you from doing what you identified as extremely high value tasks?” Of course, not all the calves would die, and the cows don’t need ear tags in the calves to know which calf is theirs. Sure, there might be a few calves lost due to our lack of attention, but I think we tend to overestimate our ability to save calves at calving. Sometimes our involvement just screws stuff up. This becomes even more true if calves are born in warmer weather.  

The point of this is not that you shouldn’t tag your calves, or that you shouldn’t check your cows at calving but rather that you need to challenge yourself to make sure you are spending your time doing the highest value tasks for your business. As Steven Covey points out in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, it is easy to be so busy doing the urgent tasks, that the important tasks go undone.    

Are there important tasks that are going undone in your business because you are so busy with the urgent? I recommend completing your economic plan for 2020, as that is an important task that should  have been taken care of by now. What is your expected economic profit for this coming year? I bet most of your neighbors are too busy checking cows and tagging calves to bother putting together an economic plan for 2020. Don’t be like your neighbors. Don’t be so busy with the urgent, that the important gets neglected.

12 Responses to “Is Tagging Calves a Good Idea?”

April 22, 2020 at 4:25 am, Shar said:

With trying to retain twin lambs for replacement ewes I found it much faster to notch ears for twins or singles than tagging. And there are a lot more individuals to keep track of in a given acreage with sheep.


April 22, 2020 at 5:04 am, Becky Collins said:

Home Place Cattle could not agree with you more. Here in SC we are better served to spray our hay land for weeds , prepare hay equipment and line up our fertilizer needs for this year be it chicken litter or fertilizer. We find that there is no time to spare to tag new borns. It’s survival of fittest. Our involvement in birthing process never has much benefit . We tag when we round up later in season when we vaccinate, castrate, worm etc. Your article could not have come at better time for me. Just had this debate with one of my ranch hands . Most of the time our ranch hands are mostly interested in practicing their roping skills. Thank you! Becky Jean Collins Owner


April 22, 2020 at 7:30 am, Michael Leroux said:

For a purebred operation sorting cattle to go to separate pastures pairing cattle to go with right bulls is much more efficient with matching identification. Establishing birth weights, and yrlg data etc to identifiy individual cattle performance relies upon some form individual identification. Identification of treated animals for all natural of drug free cattle required identification to be accurate.

It is a balance between long term performance, labor for sorting and market premiums vs additional labor and stress at calving. sounds like a classic study opportunity for a University.


April 22, 2020 at 10:34 am, Tony said:

I grew up onm 500 cow-calf-yearling ranch. We never used eartags until the mid 1980’s. The biggest cost I’ve seen to using eartags, is the ruination of cow(wo)men because they don’t see past the cow’s ear.


April 22, 2020 at 11:49 am, Maggie said:

We tend to tag any of those calves from pairings that could lead to replacer heifers or bulls. The rest of the calves may or
may not get a tag … vulnerability being one condition and all calves from the first calf heifers get tags. We use this information for culling the heifers in the fall .


April 22, 2020 at 8:59 pm, Rick said:

Just finished replacing faded or placing a second ear tag in cows prior to start of calving. Guess I subscribe to the theory ” You can’t manage what you don’t measure and you can’t measure what you don’t identify.”
If being average is good enough and you haven’t organized or figured out how you are going to be in business next year, maybe there is no point to tagging or ranching.


April 23, 2020 at 6:55 am, Leo Barthelmess said:

Tagging calves prevents me from doing WOTB work.


April 23, 2020 at 10:38 am, Maggie said:

I think positivity is really important right now. All the farm papers a full of doom and gloom. We’ve had bad times before in the cattle industry and we really dont need to be reminded daily that the “Lefties” and “Rightists” dont like us and blame us for everything from climate change to Covid 19. As cattle people , we tend to be a bit solitary but we are NOT antisocial!! … and for now anyway, NOBODY thinks I’m weird and reclusive ! LOL!! I am hoping all this negativity isnt gonna scare our kids and grandkids away from ranching and feeding cows. I’m almost 80 and still put my 12 hours in the sadldle .. lately I noticed my old mare has a pretty good swayback and it got me thinking. And you know what?? The world needs us and people like us are really good at what we do. I’m thinkin’’ there’ll always be a cow and there’ll always be a cowboy..


April 24, 2020 at 10:16 pm, Chuck Kreps said:

Production testing is key to improving your herd, better replacements, better weaning weights, more profit per cow. No tags mean no tracking. It is way to be more competitive with smaller numbers.


May 01, 2020 at 2:12 pm, Anthea NT Australia said:

Agree completely.
Never seen a calf die because it does have a brand and tag.
Seen plenty die after getting these.
Seen plenty die due poor nutrition and lack of good quality water.


May 22, 2020 at 6:37 pm, David Pratt said:

Test away, provided you get your WOTB done first!
Too bad there isn’t some kind of lock on the pasture gate that requires you deposit coins in it to open it to do your WITB if you haven’t already done your WOTB. I’d make it so you had to insert about 4,000 quarters ($1,000) to go out to check the cows if it comes at the expense of WOTB. That’s probably cheaper than what it is actually costing people to do the WITB if the WOTB is undone.
If you don’t think the planning will make you that kind of money then you don’t know how to plan. Better get to RFP!


April 03, 2021 at 2:50 am, Chaser said:

Tag away. Tags all day. Due to are calving conditions in extreme weather. When evaluating are cattle. I like to keep my lines straight especially when you have the chance. I see that Spending time in the calving lot tagging calves allows you to monitor the health. Not only currently but as the cow matures. Cow/ calf pairs are like apples. They don’t fall too far from the tree and there are always a few bad apples.


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