USDA APHIS Proceeds With RFID Deployment Timeline

By Claire Swedberg

The agency is launching pilots of the technology for cattle tracking, while offering to share the cost of RFID deployments with U.S. states as they transition from metal ear tags to RFID-enabled LF and UHF tags that can be read via handheld or fixed portal readers.

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The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is moving forward on plans to deploy RFID tagging for cattle in the United States as the industry transitions from metal clips to RFID tags. The agency is embarking on several pilots of the technology, while some states are legislating parallel RFID rules or recommendations.

A cost-sharing program, in which the USDA will pay some of the expenses of the transition to RFID, is slated to begin this fall. That includes cooperative agreements with states to help fund the purchase of reading devices by livestock companies and accredited veterinarians. The program is part of an Animal Disease Traceability (ADT) program intended to make it easier to identify livestock by tracing their history from birth to slaughter, and thereby prevent or address any disease spread.

Aaron Scott

As of December 31, 2019, the USDA will no longer offer free metal tags, though cattle farmers can still purchase such tags in some states for another year from approved tag vendors. By January of 2021, RFID tags must be used for each new animal. Two years later, in 2023, RFID ear tags will be required for every beef or dairy cow moving interstate. Both LF and UHF RFID tags will be acceptable, and the choice of frequency depends on the state in which a producer is located. Tags must also be part of a matched set, with visual identification as well.

After the transition to RFID tags takes place, veterinarians recording tag data may collect information using a wand or a mounted reader instead of restraining an animal in a head catch and then reading and recording tag numbers manually, according to Aaron Scott, the director of the National Animal Disease Traceability and Veterinary Accreditation Center for USDA APHIS. This results in less trauma to cattle, the USDA contends, while reducing costs and time for producers.

Most of the data collected is not being held by the USDA, and the agency’s Animal Health Events Repository (AHER) mitigates privacy concerns by accepting minimal data elements associated with animal identification number and event records from state or private systems. Owner, location and production information from states and third-party participants are not included in the minimal data elements. AHER collects an event type, the date, the state and a point of contact for the database, where the actual information is held for when it is needed to identify diseased or exposed animals. This provides an electronic index to determine who has the traceability data.

An RFID-based cattle-tracking system was conceived in 2017, Scott says, when APHIS completed its assessment of the ADT regulation. At that time, APHIS’s personnel who are dedicated to traceability met with state veterinarians and APHIS’s Veterinary Services field officers to solve animal-traceability issues. The group’s report was published for public comment and was followed by ten public forums across the country to obtain input from the livestock industry and veterinarians. The USDA held nine such listening sessions, while the Kansas Department of Agriculture held one session of its own.

After compiling all of the feedback, the agency identified several issues it needed to address in order to improve its ability to rapidly contain high-impact diseases among livestock. “The most frequently identified need was for better use of electronic ID and records,” Scott reports. Following the sessions, both the U.S. Animal Health Association and the National Institute for Animal Agriculture recommended transitioning to RFID for the identification of livestock such as cattle, to have official identification in 2018, with the full transition date set at 2023.

Additionally, Undersecretary Greg Ibach last year announced “Four Overarching Goals” to better protect the livestock industry from devastating diseases. Each goal is dependent on advancing an electronic ID that would be collected and managed via RFID, Scott explains. These include sharing electronic data among federal and state animal health officials, veterinarians and industry professionals; using an electronic ID to make the transmission of data more efficient; tracking an animal’s life from birth to slaughter via that electronic data; and working to create a system for sharing data between private veterinarians and state animal health officials.

Digital IDs have already proven beneficial when they have been used, Scott says. “Almost a hundred percent of animals with electronic IDs have been traceable,” he states, “while those with no ID, or other types, are often not found or are only found after weeks to months of time.” When an animal disease breaks out, Scott adds, state officials traditionally could only shuffle through paper health certificates to find the necessary records about an infected animal or others with which it might have been in contact.

In some cases, proper records cannot be located. One recent outbreak of tuberculosis in an animal with no ID led to traces across 13 states, Scott recalls, as well as the quarantining and testing of 99 herds of cattle. “This resulted in substantial costs, not only for regulatory officials and tax payers, but even more so for the cattlemen whose cattle may have been exposed.” Tracing and testing animals without electronic records, in fact, can take more than a year to complete, whereas with electronic records and an official ID, state veterinarians can typically trace the affected animals within about two and half hours.

With the new program, the USDA will share the cost of RFID tags as the transition takes place. The agency offers guidelines for approved tags, including ear tags for cows, and will pay 50 cents per tag. It also provides advice for injectable transponders in horses, alpacas, llamas, sheep and goats.

“The most important thing for the industry to do is to begin using official RFID tags instead of the metal clips,” Scott says. Any selected tags must be approved by the USDA, which requires testing to assure their quality standards and lifetime retention. The tags can then be used for official identification linked to information such as brucellosis vaccination, tuberculosis testing, interstate or international movement, and health papers.

Many states are currently working with the USDA or are issuing related recommendations to ensure the transition takes place smoothly for the cattle industry. Those efforts are under way by Kentucky’s Department of Agriculture and the Washington State Department of Agriculture, for instance. Cattle that do not move off a farm, or that do not leave their state of birth, will be exempt from the RFID requirements.