Cattlemen and ranchers have three national organizations vying for their loyalty and support, and they don’t always agree on policy.

That’s apparently going to be true for something as simple as whether the interstate movement of cattle should require the use of radio-frequency ear-tags for traceability purposes.  Commonly referred to as RFID, electronic ear-tags are used in Europe to track animals from birth to market and even on to the meat counters of retail outlets.

In comments filed last week that expressed some concerns, but overall support for going to an RFID system, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association said  “knowing where diseased and at-risk exposed animals are, as well as where they have been and when, is indispensable to emergency response and ongoing disease control and eradication programs.”   

In comments filed ahead of the deadline, the USCA expressed support for RFID with these provisos:

  • There should be no private control of data, or access to the data, without the prior approval of the owner at the time of application.
  • 840 series EID tags should be only used as official EID on the U.S. born and raised cattle because 900 series tags are not unique in their official identification.
  • All official USDA tag information should be held in state animal health databases and shared with federal animal health officials as needed.
  • The use of USDA metal NEUS tags and electronic tags should continue. The industry requires more time to adapt and transfer to an all-electronic system; time will determine whether multiple systems can be used.
  • The official ID should only be required on breeding cattle and only as they move into interstate commerce, or as determined by each state’s importation requirements
  • As the industry looks to adopt EIDs, financial assistance from USDA will be required to supply reader equipment, both low frequency (LF) and ultra-high frequency (UHF).
  • As any future transition is made to EIDs, the process will eventually need to move to UHF in order to improve read range and the ability to read animals and groups at the speed of commerce.
  • Producers should never be responsible for more than the cost of the tags.
  • Premises identification numbers (PINs) should not be required to acquire and apply EID tags. The same information can be gathered on health certificates and test charts and other animal health documents.

Also, the Denver-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association filed comments, saying that it “has long been supportive of traceability for animal health purposes and believes that the goal of any identification program should be to enable the cattle industry, state, and federal animal health officials to respond rapidly and effectively to animal health emergencies.”

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Service (APHIS) accepted comments on the proposed transition to RFID through Oct. 5.  Under consideration is making RFID a requirement in the movement of cattle across state lines to make traceability possible.

The U.S. beef industry has test-driven RFID systems since 2018 in three state pilot programs conducted in Kansas, Florida, and Texas. Michigan, since 2007, has required RFID for cattle prior to movement from any premise in the state.  

Billings, MT-based R-CALF USA, is the only national cattle industry organization to “strenuously oppose” the move to RFID tags after Jan. 1, 2023, as proposed by APHIS. R-CALF favors “various forms of animal identification” including metal (numeric) ear-tags.    

R-CALF says there is a “hidden mandate” in the APHIS proposal that requires cattlemen to register their premises and obtain premise ID numbers.  

“Current regulations do not require a producer to register his or her premises as a prerequisite to shipping cattle interstate.” according to R-CALF.  “But, the proposal to mandate RFID does.”

APHIS, however, appears to be moving ahead with its plans. In August, it announced contract awards for up to 8 million low-frequency RFID ear-tags for use by cattle and bison. Contracts allow for additional purchases during the next five years.

“USDA continues its commitment to protecting our nation’s animal agriculture by increasing traceability in the cattle and bison sectors — in this case, by providing free RFID tags to interested producers,” said Greg Ibach, USDA’s undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs. “This will not only help offset the costs of switching to RFID tags but also help us more quickly respond to potential disease events.”

ThenUSDA sees RFID as the best method for the rapid containment of any cattle disease with high economic impact. RFID ear-tags can provide state and local veterinarians and the livestock industry with the information that would be needed to control the spread of disease ahead of substantial damage being done.

The USDA is giving RFID tags without charge to states and accredited veterinarians.   The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association policy favors keeping future costs for the physical tag, tag application data collection, and data management from becoming the responsibility of the individual producer.

“With the growth of a global marketplace, our trading partners will begin to expect a more comprehensive and transparent national animal identification system,” wrote USCA President Brooke Miller.  

The USCA’s comments said that all official tag information should be held in state animal health databases and shared with federal animal health officials as needed.

“Producer information should only be used for disease tracking by state and federal animal health officials and for no other purposes. There should be absolutely no private control of data, or access to the data, without the prior approval of the owner at the time of application,” the comments state. “The confidential nature of the information stored within an ADT system would present a clear conflict of interest for private organizations to own and manage.”

A final rule with these provisions likely comes next:

  • Beginning Jan. 1, 2022, the USDA would no longer approve vendors to use the official USDA shield in the production of metal ear tags or other ear tags that do not have RFID components.
  • On Jan. 1, 2023, RFID tags would become the only identification devices approved as an official ear tag for dairy cattle pursuant to § 86.4(a)(1)(i).
  • For dairy cattle that have official USDA metal clip tags in place before Jan. 1, 2023, APHIS would recognize the metal tag as an official identification device for the life of the animal.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here)