Tattooing Highland Cattle

Follow these Nine Steps for Legible Tattoos

Proper identification at birth and legible tattoos are essential to maintaining accurate parentage and production records of Highland cattle. This means that every registered Highland must have a legible tattoo in its ear(s) prior to sending in the registration application. The tattoo must include the original owner’s herd letters (approved by AHCA), unique number and year the calf was born (number of the year or letter equivalent assigned by AHCA). You will get satisfying results if you follow these steps.

1. Check your equipment after you have decided on a system for tattoo identification and before you begin the actual job. You will need the following equipment: chute adequate to restrain the animal, herd records for reference, alcohol and towel (or sponge) for cleaning the ear, at least one set of tattoo digits, tattoo letters representing your herd letters and year of birth of calves (if applicable), a tube of fresh green tattoo paste, toothbrush and tattoo pliers. Tattooing supplies are available at farm supply stores or by mail order from livestock supply companies such as Nasco. 

2. Sterilize your tattoo set with alcohol or an equivalent disinfectant. The use of dirty tattoo equipment can transmit wart viruses and other diseases from one animal to another. Warts will not only obscure the tattoo but often spread to other parts of the body. Sanitation is always important in herd management and cleanliness is especially significant whenever the blood system is involved.

3. Check your records to be sure of the exact tattoo you are going to use to identify the animal you have in the chute. You may want to incorporate the tattoo into the animal’s registered name so it will have more meaning to you later on and this will simplify your record keeping.

4. Check each tattoo by testing it on a piece of cardboard before you apply it to the animal’s ear. It is easy to put the tattoo digits backward in the pliers or to make a simple mistake when arranging them. This quick test will prevent mistakes, it is best to check and then re-check.

5. Dampen the towel with alcohol to remove the wax from the ear lobe. If the wax isn’t removed it will prevent the tattoo paste from penetrating the skin and making a permanent mark. Keep in mind the middle lobe of the right ear is where the Brucellosis tattoo will be placed in heifers so make sure to leave this space open for your vet. AHCA suggests placing the entire tattoo in the left ear.

6. Rub the green paste in the lobe before applying the tattoo. This is an optional step but many breeders feel this method will carry some of the paste into the ear as the tattoo digits are pressed into the skin. Some breeders recommend blunting the needle tips to increase the size of the holes and to reduce bleeding.

7. Tattoo the ear in the inner area where the hair won’t obscure the tattoo marks. Sometimes you may have to trim the hair from the ears with scissors first. Place the tattoo pliers parallel with the ear ribs and press firmly. The needles shouldn’t penetrate the entire ear as this will increase bleeding.

8. Rub the paste in with the toothbrush. This should be continued until all bleeding has stopped and you are positive the paste has filled the needle holes. This step is essential for getting a legible and permanent tattoo mark.

9. Check all tattoos at weaning or other times you have cattle in a chute. You should always check tattoos carefully before you offer your cattle for sale or exhibition.

Plan a Simple but Effective Tattoo System

A registered breeder should plan his or her tattoo system carefully when beginning a Highland herd. A well planned system will simplify record keeping and individual animal identification. You may want to make the tattoo and the code on the ear tag identical.