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Farm Language: Ear Tags

Farmers tend to speak their own language that might be foreign to most people, which was made evident during an annual bred cow sale held in southern Iowa this past weekend. It had been a few years since we had attended and it is the first year where we went with the intent that my husband and I would purchase 3-5 bred cows. I grew up around livestock but mostly on the show side of things. The show industry is quite a bit different from production agriculture.

Dad and grandpa raised around 100 head of cows when I was little but they began to get out of it by the time I was old enough to really help. We are slowly rebuilding the herd and with that, we went to the sale on Saturday in hopes to buy a few cows to add to our cow/calf program.

The last time we attended, we noticed different colored ear tags. Dad explained that the different colors meant that the cows were different ages. I am not sure if every auction uses the same language but here it seemed all the farmers knew the ear tag code.

There was no display and no key on the listings. I am sure we could have asked but instead we decided to observe and by the time we left the auction, I had created a key on the bottom of the sheet. The colors represented the cow age.

White: heifer, a young female that has not had her first calf

Green: 3 year old

Yellow: 4 to 6 years old

Blue: 7 or 8 years old

Orange: Solid mouth (close to adult)

Red: Adult

Okay you might be wondering what solid mouth means! Did you know an age of a cow can be determined by looking at her teeth? Milk tooth is a calf, the teeth are short and soft. As the cow gets older, the teeth become worn out and eventually will fall out. Solid mouth means the cow still has all of her teeth but she has almost reached adult stage. Broken mouth or the red tag means the cow is beginning to break or lose her teeth.

Farmers will use this information to help make decisions when purchasing. For example on our farm, we are looking for young cows to help build up our herd. We are relatively small so it is important to look at the longevity of the cow. A healthy and productive cow can live to be 12 years old or so.

Below is the listings from the sale. You can see there is additional information to help the farmer make decisions. The breed, calving due date, vaccination records are all factors that will aid in interest and price.

There was over 900 cows for sale on Saturday and this was due to dispersals (farmers selling all of their cows), downsizing herds, or farmers who focus on raising good quality commercial cow/calf pairs.

We ended up bidding on 5 cow/calf pairs and my dad bought 4! We brought home 9 cows between the ages of 2 and 7 years old. Such a fun day!

Thank you for taking the time to read, as always if you have questions don't hesitate to reach out.


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