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Missing in action: Study finds ear tag retention a major problem

Calves have almost 100 per cent ear tag retention, but one in nine 
mature cows loses their tag — and it can be as high as one-third

Cow-calf producers were right all along — ear tag retention in mature cows sucks.

“There is a lot of back and forth within the industry as to the effectiveness of these tags, and a lot of the cow-calf producers were identifying concerns about the longevity of the tags,” said Ross MacDonald, project manager for the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA) tag retention project.

“But really, there was no hard data out there. This project is the first step in saying yes, there does appear to be a problem in these areas.”

The project began in 2011 with more than 5,000 animals tagged to look at how ear tags perform in calves and mature cows in Western Canada.

“We’re evaluating not only gross retention across the country, but also retention between those individual brands and retention between various locations of the cow herds,” said MacDonald, who ranches near Lake Alma, Sask.

And so far, the data “reflects some of the concerns in the industry.”

“Across the country, there are complaints about the performance of the tags, so the fact that we’ve identified that there’s a legitimate issue is paramount,” said MacDonald.

In calves, tag retention is “almost 100 per cent” up to 18 months of age, but mature calves average around 90 per cent retention — a full 10 per cent drop after cows hit 18 months. And in some cows, tag loss ranged from three per cent to an astonishing 35 per cent.

“It’s not really the calves where there’s a huge issue. They retain their tags just fine,” said MacDonald. “Really, it’s the mature cows that seem to be the thorn in some producers’ sides.”

And though the project wasn’t designed to track the exact means of loss, the anecdotal evidence is that there is “pretty consistent plastic breakdown” on the tags. The seven brands of tags used were all applied according to manufacturers’ directions, and in calves, that was enough to help improve retention.

“On the young cattle, we seem to have demonstrated that when tagged according to manufacturers’ directions, retention can be expected to be near 100 per cent,” said MacDonald.

But for mature cows, the process is a little trickier, and MacDonald has seen that things like facilities, restraints, and weather all seem to have a role in tag retention.

“It’s allowed the discussion to move beyond general complaints. We’re starting to dial in on where the more specific roadblocks or challenges are,” he said.

“If there are ways to narrow the scope as to which methods, which tags, and at what temperatures you can have the best chance of keeping those tags in there long term, that’s all pretty relevant information.”

Once the project is completed this year, the results will be used to drive policy changes to address the “legitimate concern” producers have with existing tags.

“With this information, the corresponding policy steps will follow and the corresponding decisions can be made as to where Canada’s ready to go in terms of cattle traceability,” said MacDonald.

On his own farm, tag retention is “definitely an issue” — one that goes beyond mere frustration by hitting his bottom line.

“You don’t want to invest the time and dollars in tagging an animal with the expectation it’s going to be there for the life of that animal and then at some point you have to go back and redo it,” said MacDonald.

“I think most people want to know that when they tag an animal and go to ship that animal, that tag is still there.”

About the author


Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.


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