Metal ear tags for sheep and goats such as the one pictured, can pose a threat to shearer and sheep if improperly placed. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Steve Byrns)
Metal ear tags for sheep and goats such as the one pictured, can pose a threat to shearer and sheep if improperly placed.

Misplaced metal scrapie ear tags could pose risk to shearer, sheep

APHIS quit providing free plastic scrapie program tags as a cost-saving measure, but less-expensive metal tags are still available at no cost.

A switch from plastic to metal ear tags could spell trouble for sheep shearers and the animals they shear if the tags are applied incorrectly, said Dr. Reid Redden, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service state sheep and goat specialist at San Angelo, Texas.

Redden said the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) recently quit providing free plastic scrapie program ear tags to the sheep and goat community as a cost-saving measure, but the agency is still offering the less-expensive metal tags free to producers.

Scrapie is a prion disease of the central nervous system in sheep. Scrapie tags are used to trace the disease in sheep and goats to their point of origin anywhere in the U.S. While the metal tags are free, plastic tags still can be purchased from approved suppliers.

“This program has done a great job of cleaning up scrapie, and we are on the verge of eradicating scrapie in the U.S. due to APHIS’s work, so we applaud them for that,” Redden said. “However, if ranchers switch from using a plastic tag to a metal tag, they do need to pay some attention to where that tag is placed, because metal tags inadvertently hit by sheep shearers while they are shearing do pose a risk.”

“The hand-piece is running at about 3,000 revolutions per minute, and if that metal tag gets caught up in that comb, it can lock up and jar the hand-piece out of the sheep shearer’s hand, which could cause injury to the shearer, sheep or both,” he explained.

Dr. Lisa Surber, who is with the raw wool services arm of the American Sheep Industry Assn. headquartered in Denver, Colo., recommends placing the tag in the animal’s left ear.

“So there’s no confusion, it’s the ear on the left side of the animal’s head as you stand behind it,” Surber wrote in a news release distributed by the association. “Ideal placement would have the tag inserted into the middle to the outside of the ear — not close to the head — where it is more visible, thus preventing the tag from being caught in the comb.”

Redden, a shearer himself, said the sheep shearer is more likely to see the tag there and avoid hitting it as opposed to placing it in the right ear close to the head, where it’s hard to see because the wool has grown out around the head and over the ear covering the tag.

“So, to reiterate, if you’re going to switch from plastic tags to metal tags, please put them in the proper location -- and that’s in the top side of the sheep’s left ear away from the head,” Redden said.

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