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Farmers Learn to Milk RFID

The technology is slowly gaining traction as a way to identify cattle, deer and other livestock for disease management and prevention. But without government mandates, it will likely take other business benefits to spur adoption.
By Jennifer Zaino
Jun 17, 2013

In the United States, cattle tend to be bought and sold more often than most other livestock, so when there's an outbreak of bovine tuberculosis or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease), it's difficult to identify the point of origin and other potentially diseased animals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had been administering the National Animal Identification System, a voluntary livestock-tracking program, but the program suffered from a lack of participation and was eventually discontinued.

Some ranchers preferred not to share information about their business with the government, and many small farmers said the cost was prohibitive. The program recommended but did not require the use of radio frequency identification ear tags, which have been demonstrated to be more effective than plastic ear tags or bar codes that tend to get covered in mud and become difficult to read.

Photo: Michigan's Department of Agriculture | Illustration: iStockphoto

But when cattle can't be traced accurately to specific locations, herd testing often is expanded to determine any possible exposure to disease. The USDA cites that bovine TB investigations frequently exceed 150 days. "Tracebacks today might take us several months to complete because of a lack of information," says Neil Hammerschmidt, USDA program coordinator for animal disease traceability.

That situation is about to change. This year, the USDA published its rule for animal disease traceability, to make it easier to track and trace livestock. Addressing farmers' concerns, the rule applies only to livestock moved interstate and offers a choice of official identification: Producers can use low-cost National Uniform Eartagging System metal ear tags, or RFID tags—low-frequency (conforming to the ISO 11784/85 standard), high-frequency or ultrahigh-frequency—from authorized manufacturers.

"When there is the potential for disease in the future, this means we will have the ability to better respond to it," Hammerschmidt says. The USDA expects a high level of compliance with the rule during the next few months. Whereas Australia, Canada and Uruguay have mandated the use of RFID for cattle tracking, the USDA is allowing the industry and states to decide which approach they will adopt.

(Argentina and Brazil are among the countries that also offer RFID as an option for identifying cattle.) "It's important we make it very clear that RFID is not a regulatory requirement for this program," Hammerschmidt says. "The states get to implement it as they like," and other states cannot require RFID ear tags be used for cattle moving into their jurisdictions.

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