RFID Tags: The Good, The Bad, The Costly

By Mayzie Purviance

Disease traceability is a pressing issue in the beef industry.  In order to rapidly track the source of diseases such as tuberculosis and brucellosis,  the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has announced that Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags are the solution.  They have set the goal of complete, mandatory implementation by January 2023.

Cate Doubet Photography.

Effective January 2021, USDA will no longer provide the current metal tags and only RFID tags are to be applied.  A partnership between USDA and state animal health officials is set to provide funding of electronic tag readers for markets and veterinarians.  Producers will be required to enter a premises identification number (PIN) to purchase RFID tags.  Specific instructions on how to obtain a PIN for each state can be found at aphis.usda.gov.

“USDA has come up with a timeline for transitioning from a traditional metal clip tag to a radio frequency or an electronic tag that doesn’t necessarily have to be read visually.  It can be read with a chip reader that a rancher or veterinarian can hang on to, retag, store the acquired data and transfer it to a spreadsheet or a database where it can be shared electronically with others,” Marty Zaluski, state veterinarian for the Montana Department of Livestock, said.

The federal identification program applies to sexually intact beef animals that are 18 months and over as well as exhibition and rodeo animals.  All female dairy cattle and all male cattle born after March 11, 2013 will require RFID tags for movement across state lines.

“For the purposes of disease tracing, electronic IDs will make state and federal government more efficient,” Zaluski said.  “We are going to be able to pull up an animal’s history, know where that animal was, know what other animals have been exposed… so that will be significantly helpful to us.”

“Change is hard,” Zaluski acknowledged.  “There are established business practices which will have to be modified to accommodate electronic ID and electronic ID reading.  There is a significant investment that needs to be made to implement electronic identification correctly.”

By “significant investment,” Zaluski doesn’t just mean RFID tags themselves.  Updating infrastructure and business practices will cost a pretty penny all across the marketing chain from ranch gate to dinner plate.

Bryan Mussard, Dillon, Montana producer, has ranched in the state his entire life.  Mussard runs 600 registered Angus cows on his ranch and custom feeds 8,000-10,000 head of cattle annually.  The requirement of RFID tags will impact him greatly.

Mussard, like many producers, said there are several questions that have yet to be answered about an electronic system such as their usability on the ground, the efficacy, and producer cost.  He said between the added expense and the burden of sourcing cattle, the new program will have an effect on ranchers across the countryside.  He does see advantages to an electronic-based traceability system though.

“Overall, I think it’s going to be a benefit.  It’s an improvement,” Mussard said.  “We’ve used them and not used them from time to time – sometimes they’ve been a real aid.”

Mussard said the biggest advantage of RFID tags is the efficiency of tracking down the chain for larger cattle feeding operations.

“The bigger feedlots are actually set up for it better.  Most of them have scanners, they scan those cattle when they get in and they can track them much easier,” Mussard said.  “I think it’ll be useful in the bigger feed yards.  They are no longer visually reading tags and once they get set up there, it’s more efficient.”

Mussard isn’t certain making it mandatory industrywide is necessary though.  He said cattle can already be easily tracked within 24-48 hours.  He is also concerned that much of the expense will fall on the cow-calf producer.

“At the ranch level, it’s always a frustrating part for us.  We always have to push back a little bit and say ‘Hey, wait a minute, we’re ultimately the ones at the bottom of the pyramid paying the bills.’  It’s challenging,” Mussard said.  “We just want to make sure it’s going to be effective for us before we bear all the burden of getting it done logistically and financially.”

Perhaps the biggest issue with making it mandatory across the industry is the loss of premiums, Mussard explained.

“In this country you’re free to differentiate yourself.  If no one wants to do it [tag their cattle] and there’s a premium out there, then there’s a market out there that I can go for and capture because I’m willing to do the extra work — that’s real added value,” he said.

With the federal government mandating RFID tags, it leaves little to no room for entrepreneurs to make themselves stand out as cattle producers.

“Take the guys that don’t want to do anything – they don’t want to vaccinate, they don’t want to tag, you’ve just raised their level up to mine that I’ve worked hard to reach.  Our system should be set up so if I do the extra work and I’ve proved there’s value there, I should be paid for it,” Mussard said.  “The guys that don’t care about what happens when that calf gets on the truck and leaves shouldn’t get paid the same as me.”

For example, he said all-natural, source-verified, or organic programs are all “niche brands” designed to create market premiums.  Incentivizing these changes may naturally influence the practices across the industry.

“Let us identify our own cattle and lead by example, influencing more and more people to get involved.  If we just throw a rubber stamp on it, we’re all the same,” Mussard concluded.

While RFID tags are expected to make disease traceability more efficient, cattle producers, feeders and veterinarians still have many questions and concerns about a mandatory nationwide program.  Answers have yet to be provided for many of these concerns.


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