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Cow with ear tag identifiers in barn

In my last year of 4-H, I chose this tall, calm, and nearly all black little Holstein. To my benefit, her personality matched her name: Grace. Grace loved beet-pulp and going for walks along the driveway. In casual farmer discussion, my mom mentioned that this calf was “out of the Gift line”. 

Cow Family Trees

Farmers can be funny and name their cows similar names within one family tree as long their name begins with the same letter. All of Grace’s maternal ancestors were named with a ‘G’. In 1995, my parents received a calf as a present from their friends. That calf’s name was Gift. Grace, her genetic great grand-daughter, was born in September 2012. 

But Grace’s family history didn’t start with Gift. It can be traced back further, to the original Grace who was born in March 1969 (I’m sure her original owners loved her too!). Within her family tree there were cows named Grape, Gertie, Gwen, and Gerri, two named Gracie and three others named Grace!

When calves are born, they are registered with their breed associations. Because Grace is a Holstein, she was registered with Holstein Canada, and received a “Certificate of Registration” (i.e., a birth certificate). These certificates are a permanent record and contain the following information:

  • Birth date

  • Dam (i.e., genetic mother)

  • Sire (i.e., genetic father)

  • Colour (i.e., black and white or red and white)

  • Farm name/Prefix (i.e., location where the calf was born)

  • Calf full name (Prefix, Sire, Name) 

  • National ID (15-digit number, typically used for movement recording and disease prevention)

We can also run into a problem. 

I can tell my dad, “Hey, Grace is looking really nice!”—sure, but which one?

This is where the cow’s number helps farmers to identify their cows. Even in a farm with 100 cows, some cows have similar names (e.g., Grace, Grazie, Gracian, Gracias, Graze). Things get complicated when you have three black calves in one year named some form of Grace. Their herd identifier helps separate one Grace from another.

Barn families are special to farm families. Grace, my beet-pulp-loving cow, is a link in what makes the farm family keep working. Yes, every cow on every farm is identified with a number, but every cow also has a name and many of them come with stories like Gift and Grace.


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