Why the Cattle Industry Shouldn’t Have a Beef With RFID

Despite some organizations' reluctance to embrace mandated tagging, the technology could prove extremely beneficial to the livestock supply chain.
Published: July 9, 2020

In recent years, we’ve seen a push to track cattle in the United States via radio frequency identification technology. Some are betting the farm on RFID’s usefulness, whereas others view the technology’s promise as being all hat but no cattle. Despite the opposition in some quarters, it’s undeniable that RFID could be immensely effective throughout the livestock supply chain. It’s time for the cattle industry to rustle up support for a government mandate.

Such a mandate has been brewing for years. Back in 2015, the U.S. government’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) embarked on a nationwide pilot to test the usefulness of UHF RFID in helping ranches, feedlots, auctions and slaughterhouses track cattle. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provided tags to pilot participants so it could determine RFID’s effectiveness at identifying animals moving from one location to another (see USDA Embarks on 18-Month UHF RFID Pilot for Tracking Cattle), and APHIS moved forward last year with its plans to foster RFID cattle tagging throughout the United States.

Concurrent with the agency’s pilots, Washington and other states began legislating rules and recommendations regarding RFID use in this sector (see Cattle Industry to Weigh In on RFID in Washington State). A cost-sharing program was announced, with the USDA offering to help fund a nationwide transition to RFID by covering 50 cents per tag, as well as proposing cooperative agreements to help states fund the purchasing of readers by veterinarians and livestock companies. The goal: to address the spread of diseases by identifying livestock and tracing each animal’s history from its birth to its slaughter (see USDA APHIS Proceeds With RFID Deployment Timeline).

The United States seemed on track to put in place a government-mandated RFID-tracking program for cattle. In fact, it was announced that RFID tags (either low-frequency or ultrahigh-frequency) would be required to track every animal by January 2021, and that ear tags would be mandated for every beef or dairy cow moving interstate by 2023, with the choice of frequency varying by the state in which a particular producer was located. The states began working with the USDA, and several issued recommendations to ensure the transition would proceed smoothly. However, in the months before the COVID-19 pandemic brought drastic changes to every industry, the situation shifted.

After APHIS posted a factsheet to educate producers regarding its guidelines and goals related to animal disease traceability, the USDA received a lot of feedback from the livestock industry—much of it disappointingly negative. Compounding the problem, executive orders from the Trump Administration put up several roadblocks that paused the program’s progress. As a result, APHIS revisited the guidelines and removed the RFID factsheet from its website. That didn’t stop multiple states from continuing to promote RFID through local programs, but it did put efforts to enact a nationwide system on hold (see U.S. States Further Livestock RFID Use Despite USDA Pause). The tagging mandate bought the farm, at least temporarily.

Recently, the USDA published a new proposal in the Federal Register regarding its continued goal of requiring RFID tags for all livestock moving across state lines, and cattle producers have until Oct. 5 to submit comments about that proposal. This week, Bill Bullard of R-CALF USA—”a national, non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring the continued profitability and viability of the U.S. cattle industry,” which describes itself on its website as representing “the collective voice of U.S. cattle and sheep producers in domestic and international trade and marketing issues”—spoke with Brownfield AG News about why he opposes such a plan (see Cattle Group to Continue Battling USDA Over Mandatory RFID).

“Unfortunately,” Bullard told writer Larry Lee, “the agency is dead set upon gaining control over the live cattle supply chain in the United States and the first step to do that is to require every producer to begin using the RFID technology.” Bullard said he objects to mandatory RFID tagging due to the expense involved, explaining, “Currently, with the cost-price squeeze producers are experiencing [due to the ongoing pandemic], this is not the time for the agency to mandate additional production costs.”

I empathize with Bullard’s concerns about the cost of implementing an RFID system during a time of financial crisis. COVID-19 has affected every person and company on the planet and will continue doing so for years to come, so it’s natural for businesses to panic at the thought of having to spend additional money right now. However, I also feel that his and others’ beef with the RFID proposal is shortsighted. Sometimes, a large investment is required to attain long-term gains. A nationwide RFID cattle-tagging program would benefit consumers, retailers and cattle owners alike, and would not only protect the health and safety of the animals and the humans who consume them, but also, ultimately, it would save money for all involved.

RFID enables ranches and other supply chain members to easily identify livestock, track animals’ movements, monitor for diseases and optimize processes. Tagging livestock can automate routine tasks, such as the dispensing of feed to different types of cattle based on their specific needs. And an RFID database can store veterinary records and breeding histories, enabling cattle producers to avoid the time-consuming manual processes involved in selling animals, while boosting accuracy and efficiency.

In addition, RFID can help ranches and farms prevent theft and poaching since each individual animal is trackable via its RFID tag ID number—much like tagging household pets can help families find those that might wander outside and end up lost. An RFID solution can be set up to monitor for suspicious activity, keep animals from leaving secure emplacements, and prevent them from approaching roadways, ravines, electrical systems and other dangerous areas. When each head of cattle has its own unique ID, the task of identifying animals and collecting data can be carried out at far greater speeds, while enabling all members of the supply chain to quickly access information about a particular animal’s date of birth, its inoculations, its health history and more.

The technology provides disease traceability, allows producers to meet inspection requirements electronically, expands the potential for international marketing opportunities—since several countries require the kind of digital history for cattle that RFID affords—and lets users monitor what happens to the animals as they are loaded onto trucks and are then moved throughout the supply chain. In short, RFID provides a digital record that boosts visibility into animals’ health, condition and history. It can protect the cattle industry against the rapid spread of illness, while helping it to meet the growing expectations of buyers both foreign and domestic.

All of this translates to financial gains. Those opposing the enactment of a nationwide cattle-tagging mandate do so under the perception that the short-term costs involved in setting up an RFID system would be prohibitive. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the longer-term benefits are clear—and that’s no bull. At a time when many companies are worried about their continued prosperity, having a tool like RFID in their arsenal could help them survive the challenging times we will face in the months and years ahead. An optimized livestock supply chain benefits everyone, and it would be smart for those standing in the way of progress to take a step back, consider the bigger picture and try not to assume the worst.

Or, to quote Bart Simpson… don’t have a cow, man.

Rich Handley has been the managing editor of RFID Journal since 2005. Rich has authored, edited or contributed to numerous books about pop culture and is also the editor of Eaglemoss’s Star Trek Graphic Novel Collection.