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

By Steve Byrns, s-byrns@tamu.edu

SAN ANGELO – A switch from plastic to metal ear tags could spell trouble for sheep shearers and the animals they shear if the tags are incorrectly applied, said a shearing expert.

Dr. Reid Redden, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service state sheep and goat specialist at San Angelo, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Animal Plant Health Inspection Service recently quit providing free plastic scrapie program ear tags to the sheep and goat community as a cost-saving measure. They are, however, 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 United States due to USDA-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,” he said.

“That handpiece 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 handpiece out of the sheep shearer’s hand, which could cause injury to the shearer, sheep or both.”

Dr. Lisa Surber, with the raw wool services arm of the American Sheep Industry Association headquartered in Denver, Colorado, recommends the tag be placed 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.

For more information, contact Redden at 325-653-4576, Reid.Redden@ag.tamu.edu .

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