What are ear tags & NLIS tags and why are ear tags used on sheep and cattle?

The below information covers a lot of basic information about using ear tags in cattle, calves, sheep, lambs, goats and kids in Australia - both visual ear tags and NLIS ear tags (visual and electronic).

Table of Contents:

What’s the purpose of livestock ear tags? Why are ear tags put on cattle, sheep and goats? Why do farm animals have ear tags?

There are two main purposes of sheep, goat and cattle ear tags. One is to help farmers and others to visually identify their livestock, and the other is to comply with Australia’s National Livestock Identification System (NLIS).

Why do farmers and others want to visually identify their livestock?

Not all farmers want to visually identify their livestock. Some farmers will only use NLIS tags and may only apply them when livestock are being moved off their property. Some benefits to using visual ear tags (also known as management tags) from an early age:

  • Being able to identify livestock on-farm which can lead to improved and tailored management practices. For example, recording the individual cow numbers of troublesome, difficult birthing, poor mothering or sick cows to cull at a later date. Sheep may have a second tag put into them (e.g. a brown coloured tag) to indicate that they should be culled.
  • To indicate sex - often farmers place ear tags in the right ear of female sheep (ewes) and the left ear of male sheep (wethers and rams). This can allow for the rapid drafting of ewe and wether lambs going through a race. Some farmers may use a different ear tag colour for wether and terminal lambs which will be sold. This allows wether and terminal lambs that have gotten through fences and mixed in with ewe lamb mobs to be easily identified in the paddock and caught.
  • To indicate year of birth - it is recommended to use a different colour of ear tag for each year. This makes it easy for you to know the year of birth of your livestock without needing to catch or crush them and check their teeth. Using the recommended year tag colour (Red for 2022, Blue for 2023 & Black for 2024 etc) can also make it easier for livestock buyers (sale yard buyers, ewe buyers etc) to know the age of your livestock as these common year colours are used by the majority of commercial farmers.
  • To indicate sire (and dam) or breed type - This can be done with a second different colour ear tag, or by using different types of ear tags or by including numbers on ear tags. For example by using Leader Multi Tag ear tags for Cashmore Oaklea composite sheep and using Leader Tag Original ear tags for Lambpro Primeline composite sheep.
  • To indicate single, twin or triplet bearing sheep - whilst electronic ear tags may be more suited to this task, visual ear tags can still be used. For example, Leader micron tags (plastic washer discs available in different colours) can be placed over the ear tag (if using Leader Tag Original ear tags) in a certain colour to indicate pregnancy status.
  • To look professional - farmers selling sheep or cattle at auction or ram or bull studs can have their livestock looking more professional with their farm name printed on their ear tags.
  • For neighbours, council officers and others to easily recognise who straying sheep or cattle belong to and so they can easily help return them home.

What are NLIS ear tags used for? Is NLIS compulsory?

NLIS ear tags are legally required to be on cattle, sheep and goats before they are moved from their property of birth under Australia’s National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) rules. This usually means before they leave the farm on their way to abattoirs, feedlots, auction yards, or to other farms. However it is common for NLIS ear tags to be applied to young livestock such as when they are marked - well before they will leave their property of birth.

NLIS ear tags help with the identification and traceability of cattle, sheep and goats. The system combines three elements:

  1. All cattle, sheep and goats are identified with a visual or electronic ear tag.
  2. All properties and physical locations where livestock move through are identified with a unique identification code known as a Property Identification Code (PIC)
  3. All livestock location data and livestock movements are recorded in a central database.

What does a NLIS tag look like?

NLIS White Breeder Cattle Tag
NLIS Orange Post Breeder Cattle Tag
NLIS White Breeder Cattle Tag
NLIS Orange Post Breeder Cattle Tag

NLIS Sheep Leader Tag Original
NLIS Sheep Leader Multitag
NLIS Sheep Leader Tag Original NLIS Sheep Leader Multi Tag

Are NLIS ear tags the same as visual (management) ear tags? Why do some cattle have two ear tags?

NLIS ear tags are usually a visual ear tag for sheep but aren’t a visual ear tag for cattle. By printing the farm’s Property Identification Code and a small NLIS logo on the sheep tag, this makes it a NLIS tag (except for Victoria). It is a visual ear tag as the PIC number needs to be read visually from the tag as opposed to an electronic ear tag which can be read electronically. Often farmers print extra information on sheep NLIS ear tags such as their property name or consecutive numbers. It is common for sheep to have only one ear tag - which is both a visual ear tag and NLIS ear tag.

NLIS ear tags for cattle are not a visual ear tag. They are small electronic tags. Whilst they do have the PIC number printed on them, the writing is too small to read once the tag is applied to the cow. Farmers wanting to visually identify their cattle, need to also apply a second management ear tag (visual tag) - usually to the other ear of the cow.

Are NLIS tags electronic?

  • Cattle - Yes
  • Sheep - Not usually (they are in Victoria, and farmers in other states can choose to use electronic sheep tags)

What does a cattle management tag look like (also known as a visual cattle tag)?

Leader Cattle Management Tag Maxi Short Neck

Cattle management tags most commonly include the farm name and consecutive numbers.  They also commonly just have consecutive numbers.  Some farmers also like to include their phone number or name on them.

Why are cattle and sheep NLIS tags different?

This is due to the animal size and price differences between sheep and cattle.  Sheep and lambs are small enough and safe enough to be able to get close to and visually read their tags.  Cattle tags can be read more safely on cattle and calves by electronic means.  The sale price of cattle (around $1000-$3000) can also more easily justify the extra cost of electronic tags compared to the sale price of sheep (around $100-$300).

NLIS ear tags for cows - What are the cattle tagging rules?

Cattle must be tagged with an electronic NLIS tag before being moved off their property of birth. The tag must be applied to the cow’s right ear. Everything ID highly recommends the Leader NLIS Enviro Cattle Tag as it has great retention, a great read distance and Leader produce and dispatch them quickly.

There are two types of NLIS Cattle tags with different colours:

  • White tags (also known as NLIS breeder tags): These are used by cattle breeders and are applied to cattle anytime before they leave their property of birth.
  • Orange tags (also known as NLIS post-breeder tags): These are used by farmers on introduced cattle (not born on the farm) who have lost their original NLIS ear tag.

Only one electronic NLIS cattle tag is to be present on a cow at any one time. Orange post-breeder tags are only used on non property bred cattle who have lost their original NLIS cattle tag.

NLIS ear tags for sheep - What are the sheep and goat tagging rules?

Sheep, lambs, goats and kids must be tagged with a visual NLIS tag before being moved off their property of birth. This can be any of the 8 NLIS ear tag colours except for pink which is reserved for post-breeder tags. It is recommended that the colour of tag used is the one that corresponds to the commonly used colour of the year system (see more info below).

Everything ID recommends both the Leader Multi Tag and the Leader Tag Original as great NLIS sheep tags.

Ear tag colours for sheep - what do the different colour ear tags mean?

It is recommended that farmers use the ear tag colour that corresponds to the commonly used colour of the year system. The colours rotate in an 8-year cycle as it is unlikely for commercial farmers to have sheep older than 8 years. Having a common colour system makes it easier for other people such as livestock buyers to quickly identify the age of your livestock as these same colours are used by the majority of commercial farms.

The colours & matching years are: 

Ear Tag Colours for Sheep

White: 2017, 2025

Orange: 2018, 2026

Green: 2019, 2027

Purple: 2020, 2028

Yellow: 2021, 2029

Red: 2022, 2030

Blue: 2023, 2031

Black: 2024, 2032

Pink: Post-breeder tags (any year)

Ear tag colours for cattle - what do the different colour ear tags mean?

It is becoming more popular for cattle farmers to use cattle visual tags that also are based on the same colour of the year system as sheep (8 colours - see above table). Other cattle farmers may instead just use the one colour of ear tags and yellow is the most common colour followed by white and orange.

Note that for the electronic NLIS cattle tags, there is no choice of colour. White tags must be used for breeder tags, and orange tags for post breeder tags.

How is the Victorian NLIS system different from other states?

From 2017, the Victorian government made changes to how the NLIS system operates in Victoria. The primary two differences are:

  • Sheep and goats must use electronic NLIS tags as opposed to non-electronic visual ear tags which are used by most farmers in other states (NSW, QLD, ACT, TAS, SA, NT & WA).
  • NLIS ear tags (sheep, cattle & goats) in Victoria need to be purchased from the Victorian State Government – Agriculture Victoria. Other tags such as cattle management tags (visual cattle tags) can be purchased from Everything ID.

What can you print on a cow or sheep tag?

That’s your choice. Commonly printed are:

Cattle management tags:

  • Just individual numbers
  • Property name and individual numbers
  • Property Identification Code (PIC) and individual numbers

Sheep ear tags:

  • Just the Property Identification Code (PIC)
  • Property name and the PIC
  • Individual numbers and the PIC

Are sheep and cattle ear tags used for other purposes?

Yes, they are used for a wide variety of purposes.

Cattle management tags (visual tags) are often used for vineyards, orchards, weddings, events, and more. Sheep visual tags are often used for hat tags, work boot tags and more.

Both cattle and sheep visual tags can also be used for dog tags, key ring tags and plant and equipment tags. The two commonly used tags for dog tags (to print the dog’s name and owner’s contact number on) are (a) Leader Mini Female Cattle Size 5 Tags; and (b) Leader Sheep Multi Tags.