Identifying the Right ID Program

By Kayla Sargent

As much of the industry was gearing up to implement radio frequency identification (RFID) in their cattle programs, the USDA signaled late last week that the agency may have jumped the gun.  A “factsheet” released in April 2019 by USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) provided an implementation timeline with three significant dates to achieve the goal of mandatory RFID in all sexually intact cattle or bison over 18 months of age as well as those used for rodeo, recreation, show or exhibition.  APHIS had placed a January 1, 2023 deadline on industrywide RFID requirements, excluding feeder cattle and cattle and bison moving directly to slaughter.

This “Factsheet,” titled “A Plan to Achieve Electronic Identification in Cattle and Bison,” was removed from the agency website sometime in mid-October and on October 25, APHIS issued a new statement on Animal Disease Traceability (ADT).

“Since the Factsheet was posted, APHIS has listened to the livestock industry’s feedback.  In light of these comments and current Executive Branch policy, APHIS believes that we should revisit those guidelines,” the statement said.  “APHIS has removed the Factsheet from its website as it is no longer representative of current agency policy.”

In their statement, the agency cited recent Executive Orders, 13891 and 13892, that were signed on October 9 by President Trump in order to improve transparency and fairness in agency rulemaking.

“Consistent with these orders, APHIS has decided not to implement the requirements outlined in the April 2019 Factsheet regarding the type of identification devices that USDA-APHIS will regard as official eartags and the dates by which they must be applied,” APHIS said.

The first upcoming date that would have affected producers was January 1, 2021 at which point APHIS was planning to require the placement of RFID tags only and would no longer consider other forms of official identification, including metal clips.  APHIS Assistant Director of Public Affairs Lyndsay Cole confirmed for WAR that this deadline is now off the table.

“As for future plans, APHIS will take the time to reconsider the path forward and then make a new proposal and will provide opportunity for stakeholders to comment,” Cole said.

Dr. Bryan Roe, owner of Elite Bovine in Billings, Montana, said despite the recent change of course, he plans to continue using RFID tags in his practice.  Dr. Roe and his team bangs vaccinate between 20,000 and 25,000 head of heifers each year, and tag about 40,000 to 50,000 head of cattle each year for out of state shipments.  Elite Bovine has already transitioned to utilizing RFID tags in place of bangs tags.

“Our major clients have been utilizing RFID bangs tags for 5 or more years,” Dr. Roe said.  “I feel we have the best clientele in the country for always trying to be ahead of the curve.  They have seen the benefits in their programs and the ease of record keeping due to RFID tags.  I feel that mandatory use will come about sooner or later, and I plan to have my practice and it’s clients prepared and not running circles trying to figure it out.”

Dr. Roe said he hopes the U.S. will move to an RFID system to catch up to the traceability systems other countries have in place.  He said Australia, New Zealand, the European Union and Canada all have electronic systems.  Brazil even utilizes RFID to track export products, according to Dr. Roe.

“We have a great product, better than any other in the world,” Dr. Roe said.  “But our biggest mistake will be thinking we don’t need to change or continue to get better.  One of the veterinarians I worked for before starting my own practice said, ‘if you’re not growing and moving forward, you’re going backwards.’ I have always remembered that and have tried to never allow myself to be satisfied and become stagnant.”

The APHIS statement noted that USDA’s goals to enhance ADT have not changed.  The agency is still pushing an electronic-based ADT system for not only individually identifying animals, but also for data sharing and health certificates.  APHIS is still encouraging the use of RFID tags “through financial incentives” which is consistent with producer feedback gathered by the agency.

“We continue to believe that RFID devices will provide the cattle industry with the best protection against rapid spread of animal diseases, as well as meet the growing expectations from foreign and domestic buyers,” APHIS said.

Industry Response…

On October 4, R-CALF USA and four ranchers from Wyoming and South Dakota filed a lawsuit “to stop the USDA’s effort to eliminate all animal identification options other than radio frequency identification (RFID) devices.”  Represented by Harriet Hageman, Senior Litigation Counsel with the New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA), the group argued that the move to implement RFID requirements is an example of “government overreach.”

“The USDA’s and APHIS’ action is a blatant example of unlawful abuse of power and unlawful government overreach,” Hageman said.  “These federal agencies do not have the legal statutory or authority to do what they have done here.”

Hageman explained that the 2013 Final Rule, “Traceability of Livestock Moving Interstate,” which currently outlines industry guidelines was developed through a “notice-and-comment rulemaking” process.  But the April 2019 “Factsheet” was not a result of that same process.

“The agencies, in other words, are trying to substitute what amounts to a press release for a properly adopted rule.  They know they can’t do this and have conceded as much on several occasions.  They have admitted they can’t impose animal traceability without formal rules,” Hageman said.  “In short, the Administrative Procedure Act prohibits agencies from using ‘guidance’ documents or ‘factsheets’ to overturn, amend or nullify a properly adopted rule.  That is what USDA APHIS attempted to do here.”

R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard said the organization filed the suit because their membership had many concerns with the RFID implementation plan announced in the “Factsheet.”  Beyond the cost of program implementation, the new plan violates the 2013 Rule — which R-CALF USA actively helped to develop — requires registration of properties with the federal government and may not be feasible, Bullard explained.

“The 2019 RFID plan forces a one-size-fits-all identification methodology on the entire industry by mandating the exclusive use of RFID eartags, which is the most expensive, burdensome and complicated form of animal identification,” Bullard said.

R-CALF USA said the current ADT system is adequate and resources should instead be focused on strong import standards as foreign disease is the largest threat to the nation’s cattle herd.  Bullard said the current disease traceability system is a “robust system, which is the envy of the world.”  He cited the eradication of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), prevention of spreading BSE from Canada, and confinement of Brucellosis to an area around the Greater Yellowstone Area as examples of its efficacy.

Hageman said she is evaluating the latest announcement by APHIS and will know how to proceed in “the near future.”

“While the agencies are taking a step back at this time and confirming that livestock producers may use a variety of ‘official’ techniques for animal identification, including brands, tattoos, eartags, group identification numbers and backtags, we want to ensure that they comply with the 2013 Final Rule in the long term,” Hageman said.

Just two days before APHIS’ revised statement was issued, United States Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) penned a letter to Dr. Scott Marshall, National Assembly of State Animal Health Officials President, on behalf of their membership.  The letter, signed by USCA President Kenny Graner, said discussion of transition to an EID-only system has raised some concern across the countryside.  Keeping in mind the ultimate goal of disease traceability, the group offered some suggestions for consideration.

Among the points to consider are the protection of producer data from private companies and sharing with the federal government as needed.  The group suggested that the information shall be housed in the state animal health database only.  USCA also urged the continued use of USDA metal NEUS tags as well as electronic tags to allow the industry more time to adapt to an electronic-only system.  As with the current traceability guidelines, USCA suggested that any program changes only be applied to breeding cattle moving into interstate commerce.  And of high importance is the request that “producers should never be responsible for more than the cost of the tags,” the letter said.

“Any transition to EIDs will require active, and willing, participation from the industry and producers across the country,” Graner said.

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) echoed the idea that transitioning to an EID program will require much input from the industry.  NCBA has policy that supports a strong traceability system but agreeing on how to achieve that can be a difficult task.

NCBA President Jennifer Houston said it has been a very “lively topic” amongst their membership, so much so that the organization developed a working group to address the conversation.  Their working group consists of representatives from all sectors of the industry and regions of the country.

Houston said the group is in agreement that an RFID system would be a very effective way to quickly trace cattle and protect the nation’s herd.  There are still many questions about how to best implement it, what role producers will play and the steps the industry must take to achieve it, Houston said.

That’s why NCBA expressed understanding of USDA’s decision to rollback the timeline.  The organization praised the signing of Executive Orders 13891 and 13892 at the beginning of the month.  NCBA Vice President of Government Affairs Ethan Lane said the orders will be helpful “99 percent of the time.”  Even though it may not have been in the particular case of RFID, according to Lane, he said their working group “has a lot of opinions” so this will give the industry a chance to come together on a solution.

“They have to go through the rulemaking process,” Houston said.  “And we’re fine with that.  It’s an ongoing process and they want our input, so we will continue our work.”


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