Cattle Industry to Weigh In on RFID in Washington State

By Claire Swedberg

The Washington State Department of Agriculture will schedule a period of public comment, after proposing in December that all cattle in the state must wear an LF RFID ear tag to help identify them in the event of disease outbreaks.

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The Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) is proposing updates to its rules for livestock identification that would require cattle to be individually identified with official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) radio frequency identification tags. The tags would be applied when female cattle receive brucellosis vaccination or when bulls are sampled for trichomoniasis.

The proposal will next enter a period of public comment before WSDA decides whether or not to adopt the proposed regulations. If the rule is adopted, all cattle above the age of 18 months would need to be tagged with low-frequency (LF) RFID-enabled tags, and each tag’s unique ID number would need to be linked to a particular cow’s or bull’s health and movement record in WSDA’s database.

WSDA’s Hector Castro

The requirement would dictate that female cows be tagged at the time that they receive their brucellosis vaccinations (in order to prevent the highly infectious bacterial infection) and bulls when they are sampled for trichomoniasis (a venereal disease). The tags could then be interrogated at auctions or by veterinarians throughout the animals’ life.

The state already requires official identification in the form of a metal tag to ensure that cattle owners meet its Animal Disease Traceability (ADT) policy, explains Jodi Jones, WSDA’s Animal Services Division operation manager. The ADT program is intended to meet USDA expectations for all U.S. states to progress in identification-collection systems, in order to prevent or manage illnesses among livestock. Currently, the USDA requires, at minimum, the use of a visual ear tag adherent to a specific identification standard.

“The whole goal is collecting and tracking an animal’s movement [and vaccinations] quickly,” says Hector Castro, WSDA’s communications director. In the event of a disease outbreak, he explains, the agency would use the RFID-based data to identify where any affected animals might be located. “In that way,” Castro states, “we minimize the impact of that disease.”

“Ultimately,” Jones says, “we want to reduce the economic impact on cattle producers.” Currently, if an illness—such as mad cow disease—is detected within the state, all cattle considered at risk may be put under quarantine, and may stay that way until it is confirmed that no animal are infected. “The faster we can identify the animals,” she states, “the faster we can release quarantines.”

Washington State has already implemented a metal tag identification program for several years, but the state—along with the other 49 states throughout the United States—are expected to move toward an electronic identification program by 2020. As of 2016, Washington ranchers had 1.5 million cattle (both beef and dairy) producing $1 billion in milk and $704 million in beef. Traditionally, the cattle have been tracked via paperwork, which has its limits when it comes to identifying every animal throughout every event or transaction, such as sale at auction or inoculation by a state veterinarian.

“I think some in the livestock industry recognize the value of that,” Castro says, “while others have concerns.”

Some cattle ranchers have indicated that the RFID tagging program would be a debilitating expense; for that reason, Castro adds, they oppose the mandate. The Cattle Producers of Washington, for instance, posted objections on its website, which include the cost of the tags themselves and the labor requirements for cattle producers to apply or scan the tags.

“Washington producers would not only have to purchase the reading equipment and computer software to read the tags,” the organization’s website maintains, “but the man hours required to successfully read, record and transmit information are prohibitive.” The association also believes that the requirement regarding RFID data collection might discourage producers from receiving the necessary vaccinations.

If the RFID program is mandated, the passive LF 125 kHZ tags would be available from multiple RFID technology vendors, as would handheld or panel (fixed) readers that could capture tag ID numbers and forward them to the state’s database.

An accredited veterinarian would need to apply a tag to the ear of each cow or bull for the cattle producer when vaccinating for brucellosis or sampling for trichomoniasis. He or she would then send the tag’s unique ID, along with certification of the animal’s health records, to WSDA. Veterinarians would have handheld reader to accomplish this task. That should be an easier process for veterinarians, Jones says, than the handwritten or electronic input submission veterinarians currently use.

Collecting RFID data rather than ID numbers on metal tags should be easier for vets or other individuals managing the cattle, Jones says. That’s because physically reading a metal ear tag can require the restraining of an animal’s head in order to obtain a clear look at the tag’s ID number. With RFID, she adds, “They can just wand the animal, and that’s less stress on the animal.” The veterinarian can then upload the data from his or her handheld reader to the state’s database.

The tags will cost approximately $2 apiece, and WSDA is examining how it could help subsidize that cost for cattle producers. The agency is currently in the process of scheduling a public comment period, which may not happen until the end of this year’s legislative session. Several other states have been looking into or implementing RFID tagging solutions as well. For instance, Michigan requires that RFID ear tags be applied to any animals originating within that state before they can be moved.