Improved alternatives to replace conventional methods of livestock identification, such as branding or ear tags, have been available for quite some time now. Farmers and breed­ers today are taking advantage of the trend of having more detailed information etched into the ears of their prized animals as a means of identification and keeping track of treatments or breeding factors.

Marking and branding livestock can be done in a number of ways, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Several factors, such as the type of animal, the intended use, and local regulations, influence the decision as to which method to use. Livestock must be marked and branded correctly for identification, traceability, and disease control purposes, regard­less of the method used.

Tattoos are a fast and permanent way to identify livestock. Typically, ink or a specialised tattoo gun are used to apply them to the ear canal. Tat­toos are best suited for smaller herds because they are difficult to read from a distance.

Some tattoos need to be touched up because they blur or fade over time. Some livestock owners, however, find them to be the best option for per­manent identification. Similar to ear tattooing, ear notching is commonly believed to be more legible and resist­ant to wear and tear compared to tags.

How to ear-tattoo livestock

Tattooing involves using a specialized tool to imprint a unique number or symbol onto the animal’s ear. Before starting, it is important to ensure that the animal is properly restrained, and that all equipment is clean and sterilised. It may also be helpful to have an assistant hold the animal steady dur­ing the procedure. Once the tattoo is complete, be sure to record the animal’s tattoo number in a permanent record for future reference.

Tattooing advantages

The ability to keep ac­curate breeding records, track animals over time, and track of their health and growth are all advan­tages of ear tattoo iden­tification for livestock. As an added bonus, ear tattoos are a permanent form of identification that does not need to be replaced or maintained often. However, it is worth keeping in mind that some animals may feel pain or stress during the tattooing process, so it is important to take extra precautions.

Tattooing disadvantages

Human error in recording tattoo numbers is one drawback of tattooing livestock ears, and tattoos may fade or become difficult to read over time. Some animals and circumstances may benefit more from the use of alterna­tive forms of identification, such as microchipping or ear tags. Weighing the benefits and drawbacks of each identification technique is essential before making a final choice.

The process of ear tattooing

Typical supplies for tattooing livestock include cardboard, a wiping towel, tattoo pliers, ink, and tattoo numbers or letters. A stencil or template can be used to ensure that the tattoo is consistently placed, and disinfectant can be used to ensure that the area is clean before and after the tattoo is ap­plied, but these items are optional. The risk of infection or injury to the animal can be reduced by using high-quality equipment and adhering to proper sanitation procedures.

The ear tattooing pliers’ inverted letter symbols. (Source:

Steps to tattoo livestock

  1. Gather the necessary equipment, including tattoo pliers and ink.
  2. Use proper precautions to restrain the animal.
  3. Clean the ear thoroughly with alcohol or another disinfectant.
  4. Make a few tattoos on cardboard first to get the hang of tattooing and double-check the display of the characters.
  5. Place a stencil over the ear or draw the design freehand.
  6. Load the tattoo pliers with ink and position them over the stencil or drawing.
  7. Apply steady pressure to the pliers to make small holes in the skin and deposit ink there.
  8. Release pressure on the pliers and remove them from the ear.
  9. Repeat the process for any additional tattoos needed.
  10. Apply an antiseptic ointment to the tattooed area to promote healing.
  11. Release the animal and monitor the tattooed area for any signs of infection or complications.

Livestock ear notching

Ear notching is a permanent method of identifying livestock in which a series of notches are cut with specialised pliers into the animal’s ear. Notches can be used to provide information about the animal’s breed, age, and other vital aspects.

What tools are required for ear notching on livestock?

Notching pliers, antiseptic, and a record-keeping system with permanent entries are all necessities for success­ful notching. The procedure should be carried out in a sterile environment free of dirt and germs. Wearing gloves can help prevent injuries and keep hands clean. In addition, the procedure should be carried out with the utmost care and caution to avoid injury to both the animal and the person during the procedure.


This bull’s number is 93. A total of 93 is obtained by adding the 50 at the right ear’s tip, the 10 just above the tip, the 30 below the tip, and the 3 just below the tip on the left ear. (Photo credit: Meyersvlei Bonsmara)

How to notch the ears of livestock

  1. First, gather the necessary tools, including ear-notching pliers and disinfectant solution.
  2. Restrain the animal in a safe and secure manner to prevent injury to both the animal and the person performing the procedure.
  3. Clean and disinfect the area of the ear where the notches will be made.
  4. Make a sequence of notches in the ear’s cartilage in a pattern that corresponds to the desired identification code using the ear notching pliers.
  5. Apply an antiseptic solution to the notched area to prevent infection.
  6. Record the identification code in a permanent record-keeping system for future reference.

It is worth noting that different coun­tries and regions have different rules about tattooing and notching the ears of livestock. However, South Africa, Kenya, and Zimbabwe are a few of the African countries that permit livestock tattooing. Before tattooing and notch­ing ears, it is wise to familiarise oneself with and abide by the rules and regula­tions in effect in one’s area.

Please use the links below for guidelines on tattooing and notching livestock:





Livestock Production Management. (n.d.). Identification of livestock.

Available at:

Neary, M. and Yager, A. (n.d.). Methods of livestock identification, as-556-W – Purdue university, Farm Animal Management @Purdue.

Available at:­dia/AS/AS-556-W.pdf