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What Causes Ear Tag Retention Issues?

Between readability and retention issues, there doesn’t seem to be any perfect ear tags on the market. The tags that one rancher raves about might not work at all for the next. Here we go over the most common causes of low retention, and what you can do about it.

Cattle ear tag and tattoo diagram

Figure 1: Cattle Ear Tag and Tattoo Diagram
(Source: https://www.aces.edu/blog/topics/beef/beef-cattle-record-keeping-basics/)


The root cause of most retention issues is man-made structures tearing out tags. What do I mean by that? Bale feeders, fencing, and other small spaces that cows can work their heads into can catch tags, and when the animal abruptly jerks their head out, the tag stays behind. Even chutes and alleyways can catch tags! If you’re finding a lot of animals with lost tags, it might be a good idea to check around the pasture or pen to see if you can find a location with an abnormal amount of dropped tags.


Incorrect application of tags can also lead to low retention. If tags are applied too close to the head or in the wrong section of the ear, the ear can get infected and not heal tightly around the tag. If tags are applied too close to the edge of the head, they will not be as stable and can be torn out easier. Similarly, if the tag is too large for the animal (for example, a cow size tag being put into a calf), the tag will snag a lot easier and has a greater chance of tearing the ear.


Climate also can affect the lifespan of tags. Hot, arid conditions can cause the flexible plastic used in ear tags to dry up and break. Areas with mild climates will be easier on tags, while areas where the temperature varies greatly in a year can be harder on the plastic. While tags are designed to withstand any weather conditions, some climates are definitely easier on tags than others.


There are a lot of factors that can affect ear tags and how long they will stay in. Options such as brisket tags, metal tags, tattooing, and neck bands also exist if your ear tags are consistently falling out. Tagging animals with the same number in each ear is also an option. Let us know what you’ve found to help retention issues in your cattle @CattleVacBox on Facebook or Instagram!