There are two new baby calves on the farm--Birdsong Princess Alexandra (born May 30, 2014) and Birdsong Golden Buttercup (born July 13, 2014)—and over the next few months I am going to write a series of blog posts about tattooing, tagging, and registering a calf with Jersey Canada, with Alexandra and Buttercup as my models.
When registering a calf with Jersey Canada, you are required to tattoo or tag her first. I tattoo and tag, but both are not required and many dairy farmers choose to tag but not tattoo. I choose to tattoo because tags can get lost, plus it's a lot harder to tamper with a tattoo than with a tag!
I tattoo my calves when they are between one and three weeks of age. I don't like to tattoo earlier than one week because I want to give my calves a chance to "get on their feet" first, or after three weeks because the calves are harder to restrain.
Register your herd tattoo letters
Before you start doing any tattooing, you are required to register your herd tattoo letters with Jersey Canada for $5 plus tax. Your herd tattoo letters are three or four digits that are tattooed in the right ear of every calf that you register. This tattoo will identify you as the owner of the calf when she was born. For example, if you buy a bred cow and register her calf, you will tattoo the calf with your herd tattoo letters, not the herd tattoo letters of the previous owner.
You can choose letters or letters and numbers for your herd tattoo, and often farmers will choose their initials or the initials of their farm name. For example, I registered my initials, NKF, as my herd tattoo while my friend Melanie Guttner from Butterkup Farms in Pink Mountain, BC registered her farm initials, BKF, as her herd tattoo. But you aren't limited to initials—I found Jersey farmers with COW and MOO registered as their herd tattoo letters!
Purchase your tattoo kit
The two brands of livestock tattoo equipment that I am aware of are Ketchum and Stone. I ordered my tattoo kit from Valley Vet Supply in Marysville, Kansas. They've got a great mail-order catalogue and good prices.
You will want to buy the following items for your tattoo kit:
Tattoo pliers When I researched my options for tattoo pliers, I really liked the look as well as the price of the Stone brand, and the positive ear release was a big plus for me. Stone sells 3/16 inch, 5/16 inch, and 3/8 inch tattoo kits (that's the size of the tattoo digits); the 3/8 inch kit is your best choice for tattooing calves.
I wanted to keep my herd tattoo letters in my pliers all the time, so ordered the 3/8 inch revolving head tattoo kit. I'm glad I did, because it makes tattooing a breeze—no switching digits between ears, no searching for lost digits in the grass or hay, and no tattooing errors because I reversed the digits by mistake.
Complete alphabet set (A-Z) You can buy your tattoo letters one by one, but it's a lot cheaper (15% cheaper before adding postage costs) to buy a complete set. Remember to match your tattoo digit size to your plier size, or they will not fit. For example, if you buy 3/8 inch pliers, you'll want to buy 3/8 inch digits.
Complete number set (0-9) You can buy your tattoo numbers one by one as well, but again, it's a lot cheaper to buy a complete set. My tattoo pliers already came with a complete number set, like all of the Stone tattoo kits from Valley Vet Supply.
Extra tattoo digits If you want to keep your herd tattoo in your pliers all the time, you might want to buy an extra set of the letters (or letters and numbers) that are registered as your herd tattoo letters. I ordered an extra N, K, and F for my herd tattoo letters.
If you think you'll be tattooing a lot of calves (or goat kids ) you may want to buy a couple extra numbers as well. I ordered an extra 1 and 2, and with these two extra digits I can tattoo as high as 32! (So far I've never tattooed higher than 2 with my Jerseys and 4 with my Nubians.)
Tattoo ink You can buy tattoo ink in black, green, or white, and as a liquid, paste, or roll-on. Green is your best choice because it is visible in both dark and light ears. My tattoo kit came with black liquid tattoo ink like all of the Stone tattoo kits from Valley Vet Supply, but I ordered green roll-on ink as well and really like it because there are no messy spills and the ink will not dry out between calves.
Soft cloth or paper towel You will want to clean your calf's ears before you start tattooing. Paper towels are fine, but I like the microfiber dairy towels wet with plain water because they are so soft and remove 99% of bacteria, plus I can rewash them for the next calf.
Antiseptic/disinfectant You will want to clean your calf's ears with an antiseptic before you tattoo, and will want to clean your tattoo digits with a disinfectant both before and after tattooing.
Cotton balls or pads I pour a little antispetic/disinfectant on cotton balls or pads to clean my calf's ears and the tattoo digits and kill any bacteria.
Soft toothbrush You might want to buy a soft toothbrush to rub the ink in the tattoo you've made.
Sponge A sponge works really well for cleaning your tattoo digits when you're finished.
Storage box You can buy fancy storage boxes for your tattoo kit, but I purchased a clear 4 liter Really Useful Box from Staples instead and my brothers cut me a piece of 1 inch rigid foam insulation to store my tattoo digits in. It was a lot cheaper and I'm really happy with it.
Prepare your tattoo equipment
Find your herd tattoo letters and insert them in your tattoo pliers. Since you tattoo your herd letters in your calf's right ear, I highly recommend that you insert the digits starting from the left side for a crisp, clear tattoo; if you insert the digits starting from the right side the tattoo will be closer to the outside of the ear and not as nice. Remember to insert the digits backward as well; I inserted my herd tattoo letters, NKF, as FKN. When you are finished, check for mistakes by tattooing a piece of heavy paper first. I never take my herd tattoo letters out of my pliers, but I still double check them every time I tattoo 'cause it's a lot easier to fix a mistake before I start doing any tattooing!
Next, choose your animal number and the year letter and insert them in the other side of your tattoo pliers. Since you tattoo your animal number and the year letter in your calf's left ear, I highly recommend that you insert the digits starting from the right side for a crisp, clear tattoo.
The year letter is assigned by Jersey Canada, and the letter for 2014 is 'B'. You will tattoo the first calf that you register in 2014 with 1B, the second calf with 2B, and the third calf with 3B. For example, Alexandra is tattooed with NKF in her right ear and 1B in her left ear, and Buttercup is tattooed with NKF in her right ear and 2B in her left ear.
The year letter for 2015 is 'C', so next year you will tattoo your calves as 1C, 2C, 3C... The letters I, O, Q, and V are not designated as year letters, so the rest of the letters in the alphabet are repeated every 22 years. For example, you will find animals tattooed with the letter 'B' in 1992, 2014, and again in 2036.
Remember that you will want to insert the digits backward again (1B will be inserted as B1), and when you are finished check for mistakes by tattooing a piece of heavy paper first.
After you've checked (and maybe double checked ) your herd tattoo letters and the animal number/year letter, it's time to clean the tattoo digits with your disinfectant of choice. Now you're ready to tattoo your first calf!
This is the first post in a two-part series about how to tattoo your Jersey calf; please click here to read the second post.
I love to share stories and tips from living on my farm in Enderby where I raise Jersey cows and Nubian goats and make cheese. I work part time at the Enderby Museum, and enjoy reffing minor hockey, teaching cheese making workshops, and reading. Click here to read my bio.