Identification in Dairy Goats

Published on Thu, 11/10/2022 - 11:04am

Identification in Dairy Goats.

 By Michelle Buckley, DVM, MS, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

 Its no secret among goat owners that maintaining individual identification on a goat can be significantly more challenging than their bovine counterparts. I have been amazed at how quickly a goat can make an ear tag disappear when they are motivated, not to mention the fact that we have an entire breed of goat with no ears to tag! Neck chains or collars are a common alternative to ears as identification holders however, these have been known to provide the adventurous goat ample opportunity to cause herself physical harm under the right circumstances. When we factor in the cost of ear tags and/or collars, as well as potential injury to the animals themselves, many goat owners are left wondering whether the benefits of individual animal identification are worth the trouble.

Why bother with ID?
This summer I launched a podcast about improving milk quality in dairy goats called Baas & Bleats, with the second episode entitled “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”. I chose to make this my first topic because of the importance of individual animal identification as it relates to all production, health, and regulatory monitoring on a farm. From breeding decisions to observing appropriate drug withdrawal periods, animal identification and accurate records are the basis for monitoring milk quality as well as animal health. While small-scale farms may not find much day-to-day use for official federal ID, it is required for all interstate movement as well as almost any fair, sale, or exhibition where your animals may travel. Larger herds may have difficulty identifying individual animals visually without an external tag. Being able to identify and communicate about animals accurately is imperative for ensuring milk quality, food safety, and animal health.
What are the options?
The National Scrapie Eradication Program (NSEP) was established in 1952 in order to provide a route to eliminating scrapie in the United States sheep and goat herds. This is important for the health of our animals as well as for international trade purposes, especially shipment of semen, embryos, and live animals. You can find a more in-depth description of this program on the USDA website ( USDA 840 tags are federally recognized official identification tags which are distributed through the NSEP. You might know these better as the silver ear tags, however in 2019 the USDA stopped providing these metal tags and switched to plastic tags. As of 2021, USDA was providing up to 100 free plastic ID tags to new participants in the National Scrapie Eradication Program. These tags can be obtained by calling 1-866-USDA-TAG, must be applied by a veterinarian, and documentation must be submitted to USDA whenever these tags are applied. The owner will also receive a copy of this documentation, which is required to remain in their records until five years after the animals identified leave the flock. As a reminder, official ID tags may not be removed without explicit instruction from a USDA veterinarian. These tags are universally approved for interstate travel and any other time you need official identification (shows, fairs, exhibitions, sales, etc.). Some goats will tolerate ear tags well, however for many goats, these are a temptation for nibbling. Many producers delay placing ear tags on young animals as the tags can be heavy for young animals and may be difficult to place on juvenile ears. Not applying identification immediately at birth can present an opportunity for inaccurate tagging at a later date unless some form of permanent ID is applied immediately to reference later when visual ID is applied. Ear tags can be useful for identifying an animal at a distance without having to catch them to find the identifier. This is especially beneficial when performing visual heat detection or identifying ill animals for treatment. The USDA does state that earless goats may have their official ID applied to a neck collar, as long as the collar requires cutting to be removed (i.e., can not slip off or be unbuckled).

Registration tattoos are another form of identification that are recognized as official identification, provided they are accompanied by a copy of the animal’s registration certificate. Flock ID tattoos are also a valid form of official ID. While tattoos are useful permanent identifiers, they can be difficult or even impossible to read if applied incorrectly and are not easily used for rapid identification. Given that they may be applied to young animals, tattoos do solve the problem of immediate identification and can act as a safeguard for ensuring that young animals are linked with the proper record once easily visible identification is applied or if an animal manages to remove this ID later on. Tattoos also have the benefit of being relatively inexpensive to apply though breed registration costs must be considered.

Electronic Implantable Devices (EID) such as microchips and RFID tags are also useful forms of identification and are recognized by the USDA as official forms of ID, provided they are accompanied by a device that can read the given form of ID, as well as a valid registration certificate. Microchips can be especially useful for identifying animals from an early age, as they can be implanted at birth with minimal stress to the kid. These remain useful throughout the life of the animal with the appropriate reader. Some milking systems are equipped with EID reading equipment, which can be used to track milk production on a daily basis. Real-time data capture has obvious advantages for decision-making and may be of particular benefit for large-scale production settings, though cost of equipment may be prohibitive. As with larger ear tags, RFID tags that have been applied to ears also serve as a target for destruction by goats. Some farms have had great success in utilizing these tags applied to leg bands, though this is not a permanent application on the animal, is not accepted as official ID for travel purposes. Therefore, these must be cross referenced with a permanent form of identification, such as microchip or tattoo.

As usual, there is no one-size fits all solution for identifying animals on a goat dairy. However, by considering your animals’ behavior and your management style, you can select the identification that is both accurate and readily usable within your production system in order to make accurate production decisions, ensure animal care, and maintain food safety and milk quality.