Tattooing Cattle

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Each day is a little different here on the farm. Yesterday, we had to tackle a little job that I deeply dislike. In fact, it’s one of my least favorite cattle handling tasks.

Yesterday, we put three of our registered Black Angus bull calves through the chute and tattooed their ears.

I hate this job. The idea of jabbing a bunch of ink-coated needles in the ears of an animal makes me cringe. Thankfully, the man of the house tackles the icky part and I stand by and assist.

Why Tattoo?

The main reason that we tattoo animals is because when you sell registered stock, they must have a permanent identification mark. This can be a hot iron brand, a freeze brand, or an ear tattoo. Ear tags rip out and could be falsified. If someone wants to pay the extra money to get stock from verified bloodlines, they want to make darn sure that the animal is what they’re paying for.

How It’s Done

The biggest thing about tattooing is making sure the animal is properly restrained. We have a head catch and a chute and we ran our bull calves through it. When they were in the chute we squeezed them down to keep them from hopping around. It seems uncomfortable, but we’ve had animals get in odd positions from having too much space to move around. They can easily injure themselves if you don’t squeeze them down. They can slip and fall or get their feet in a weird place. Also, squeezing them allows us to more quickly do what must be done. With cattle, unpleasant things must sometimes take place and we try to get through those tasks as quickly as possible.

The ear is gently cleaned of all wax and dirt. Yes, cows do have ear wax! We use an old rag to wipe out the ear. We only tattoo one ear, so we only have to do this once. If the cow’s ear is fuzzy, we trim back the hair to make sure we can see what we’re doing.

(I keep typing we. What I mean is: my husband. I stand by and hand him things. )

Once the ear is prepped, it’s time to tattoo. Before the animal ever enters the chute, we’ve prepared the tattoo pliers. This tool holds small needles in letter and number configurations. The needles are coated with tattoo ink. We clamp the tattoo pliers into the ear real quick. It hurts but not for long. Then we rub the ink into the holes with an old toothbrush to make sure it’s penetrated the skin. We want to get it right because an illegible tattoo means that we’ll have to repeat the process.

After that, the animal is released from the chute. I like to give them a treat of grain afterward. It makes me feel better after being so “mean” to them.


After we’ve finished, I get to clean up. I use rubbing alcohol to remove the ink from the tattoo digits and anyplace else it ended up. This job is messy. I use cotton swabs and paper towels to get it all off. This also sanitizes the needles so we don’t end up with infections on any future cattle we end up tattooing.

And yes, I end up with green ink all over my hands when the job is done.

I’ve always said I had a green thumb!