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I have not found a definitive answer to the question, "Are sheep required by law in the US to wear ear tags?" And if they are, "Why?"


Can they be microchipped instead?


I intend to have five at the most, so telling them apart shouldn't be all that hard, should it?

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There are federally mandated requirements and state mandated requirements which were designed to allow tracing the source of a scrapies infection when found (and could be used for other infections).



Individual State Identification Requirements: What Sheep and Goats Need Official USDA-Approved Ear Tags




All sheep and goats require an official ear tag except 1) lambs or kids less than 18 months of age in slaughter channels that have not lambed, kidded, aborted or are pregnant; 2) low-risk goats; and 3) castrated animals less than 18 months of age that are not for exhibition. Specific scrapie identification requirements regarding interstate movement is available at www.cdfa.ca.gov/ahfss/Animal_Health/Permits.html. California Department of Food and Agriculture Permits may be obtained at 916-854-3900 or by contacting:


Dr. Charles Palmer, SE

Ph: 530-225-2140

E-mail: cpalmer@cdfa.ca.gov



Dr. Greg Ramos

Ph: 916-854-3900

E-mail: greg.r.ramos@aphis.usda.gov




Federal Requirement

In accordance with the National Accelerated Scrapie Eradication Program, Federal requirements mandate these groups of sheep and goats need an official scrapie USDA-approved eartag or other official identification before being moved from an owner’s premises regardless if they are being shipped in-state or out-of-state:


  • All breeding sheep and potential breeding sheep regardless of age.
  • All sheep 18 months and older.
  • All sheep and goats for exhibition except for wethers.
  • All scrapie-exposed, suspect, test-positive and high-risk animals.
  • Breeding goats except low-risk commercial goats.
  • Sheep under 18 months of age in slaughter channels that are females that are pregnant or have aborted or sexually intact animals from a scrapie-infected flock/herd.

The following groups do not need individual identification and have no movement restrictions:


  • Lambs—ewes, ram lambs and wethers under 18 months of age—moving into slaughter channels, including slaughter only auction markets.
  • Goats—wethers, does and bucks of any age—moving into slaughter channels.
  • Low-risk commercial goats—those raised for fiber and/or meat; those not registered or exhibited; those they have not been in contact with sheep; those not scrapie positive, not high risk or exposed; those not from an infected or source herd; and those not commingled with other goats at premises that do not meet these criteria.
  • Wethers for exhibition.
  • Animals moving for grazing when no change of ownership occurs.

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Here is the link to the free USDA tags, they sent us a tagging tool with the tags. The tags they sent us are not big and we actually have less problems with the ones supplied from USDA getting pulled out then other identification tags that we use. http://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/animal_diseases/scrapie/approved-tag-co.shtml

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Okay, there are laws/rules, and there is reality.


My sheep "all" get tags as lambs. Then the ewes I keep get a better, bigger flock tag. Any sheep I sell gets a scrapie tag, even if they're under 18 months. That said, I have one ewe who I never caught as a lamb, she has a tail and no tag. I could give her one, but she's easy to recognize. I call her "18's ewe" after her mother, who is maybe my best ewe. I have another ewe, "broken ear", who has torn out at least three, if not four, tags. I gave up. She doesn't have enough ear left to put in a tag! I don't haul sheep to auction, they're all slaughtered right on the farm. I do keep pretty impeccable records, and I can pretty much give you at least a four generation pedigree on any ewe born at my place.


So, rules and laws may say one thing, but every day reality sometimes has other ideas.

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Hello Geonni,


According to both federal and state regulations, sheep that do not leave the farm where they were born are not required to be tagged. But, both state and federal regulations require that sheep and lambs be tagged with an official USDA approved ear tag before they are transported off the farm of their birth (unless going directly into slaughter channels). So, that means that the sheep you purchase are required to have USDA approved ear tags before they leave the seller's farm, and you should record the tag numbers in your flock record book.




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I do keep pretty impeccable records, and I can pretty much give you at least a four generation pedigree on any ewe born at my place.


Me too Ben, most of mine I just know but I do have the records to back it up. :)



The tags aren't really that bad. I use the ones provided by USDA too and they're good quality ones. There is the occasional sheep who puts their head through something they shouldn't and that could rip the ear tag out. I've only had a couple like that.


See these aren't too big.






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Even in a small flock, you can get a bit confused even with tags if you're not close enough to see the numbers - and that's pretty close! My Clun X twins are impossible to tell apart, which is one reason why one wears a bell. (The other is safety -- if the bell starts clanking loudly, something's up in the pasture.)


Silver Belle at two months old models the tags my two Shetland lambs arrived with... Rose (not pictured) actually had lost hers prior to delivery - caught when she was attempting to scoot through a fence and her tiny ear is torn. I am hoping when she grows up to be able to somehow repair her ear around the tag so that her appearance is uniform.


Silver Belle


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OK. I bow to the sense and necessity of the ear tag...


That's a mighty cute little lamb, but I'd like her better without a little yellow hat in her ear. ;)


It's becoming less noticeable as she grows bigger. She was less than two months old in that picture - Shetlands are very tiny. She's a real princess too -- a good candidate for breed exhibition because of her sense of entitlement attitude and she likes people (and the camera), so she needs to keep her "yellow hat" if she's going off the farm. I hope that I can fix Rose's ear I'd like to take her as well... (I believe these are free tags from one of the government agencies as well.)


Here she is at five months (last week).


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In addition to the required scrapie tags/issue, I find tags necessary for record keeping. I record which ewe lambs when, and how many and the sex of the lambs, which ewe's lamb has which new tag #, so I can keep track of who belongs to whom, as well as to chart growth, who mothers well, who lambs twice a year, and so on. Since I have been growing my flock as rapidly as possible over the past few years, my personal system uses a new color each year, so at a quick glance across the pasture, I can tell who is who.


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  • 2 weeks later...

I use color for year, following the ROYGBIV sequence, except that indigo is too obscure for most ear tag color schemes so it becomes a wild card year. Black is reserved for ewes to be culled. The ear tag number starts with the last digit of the year, and is a serial number after that -- ear tags in 2012 will be 2001, 2002, 2003, etc.


Ewe lambs are tagged in the right ear, males (99.999 percent are whethers) are tagged in the right.


The number is linked to pedigree and production records. When a ewe is added to the flock permanently, she gets a USDA scrapie tag in her left ear, and that tag is cross-referenced in the records, so if one tag or the other is lost I can still identify the ewe.


Having color linked to age has turned out to be a big help at lambing time. I can tell from quite a distance if a ewe in labor is a first-timer, an experienced mother, or an old girl who might bear watching.


When sorting lambs for market, having a quick way to separate ewes from whethers is handy. For the most part, I don't need detailed information that would be linked to the sheep's records for things that I do in the field. It's adequate to take down numbers and look them up when I get back home. I know some people who use PDAs, tablets, or laptops for record keeping in the field, but I have seen what my clipboards and notebooks look like when I get done and I don't think I want to subject electronics to that kind of abuse.

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