Oklahoma examines the future of cattle traceability

It is a bothersome subject to bring up in some circles, but just like anything we do not want to deal with, the topic of electronic cattle traceability regulations is coming. To many cattlemen’s chagrin, it might be here sooner than we expect. 

Currently, cattle producers are governed by the Animal Disease Traceability rule, or ADT. It says cattle older than 18 months of age at livestock auction markets are required to be identified with an official U.S. Department of Agriculture metal ear tag. That rule does not apply to Oklahoma producers who have an in-state change of ownership, but rather to interstate cattle sales. Dairy and rodeo animals are required to have a tag for in-state sales and out-of-state change of ownership. The reason for this is that tuberculosis rates are much higher in dairy cattle and rodeo cattle are often around Mexican roping steers so they are at an increased risk of being exposed to TB.

Dr. Rod Hall, DVM, and state veterinarian for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, says the under 18 months rule and the fact that cattle sold in state do not need a tag is a big loop hole in the traceability system and it really hurts the USDA’s ability to do traces. He says the U.S. exports 13% of its beef in the international market; however, our traceability system is not exactly leading the pack of competitors. 

“There was a study done by an independent group a couple years ago and they said out of 17 beef exporting countries in the world, we had one of the worst traceability systems of all,” he said.

The system is slow and some of the information has to be entered by hand, which is expensive for the government and Hall says human error and difficulty reading veterinarian’s handwriting accounts for a 30% error rate.

Hall says improving traceability system will not promise higher market prices for calves, but there is some potential that if we do not improve our traceability as the rest of the world gets better, they may be less apt to buy our products.

“Additionally, consumers want more and more to know where their food comes from and to know that it is safe and disease-free,” Hall explained. “The ability to trace disease issues when we have them is very important to be able to prove that we are producing a safe product and consumers can purchase it with confidence.”

What has happened and what should we expect?

In April 2019, USDA published a policy that announced a timeline for when producers must switch to electronic identification. The timeline basically said producers could continue to use the metal tags until Dec. 31, 2020. As of January 2021, no new metal tags could be used and electronic tags would have to be used as official identification. 

“Because of a lawsuit that was filed against USDA and some reassessment of the policy and timeline, USDA decided they did not have the authority to institute that policy,” Hall explained. “As of Oct. 25, 2019, they put the policy on hold so the metal ID system is in place indefinitely. However USDA does continue to support the changeover to electronic ID.”

The electronic ID system is available to use right now and Hall says cattle producers need to start getting used to the idea because the changeover will happen. 

“This is just a guess, but I think it will be 2022 before we have to be switched over completely to electronic tags,” Hall said. “It will take a few years to get the kinks out of that and then USDA will start saying we have to tag everything.”

Hall expects it will be 8 to 10 years before it will be a requirement that every animal must be tagged; he gauges the timing to be between 2028 or 2030 before that goes into effect. 

“The neat thing about that is the technology will be so much better by then,” he said. “I think, ultimately, once we get this done people will look back and say I wish we’d done this 10 years ago.”

As far as whom this transition will affect the most, Hall expects it to add more record keeping for cattle traders and sellers. He says it might add some extra labor for small producers as they do not gather cattle as often, but since they do not usually sell cattle over 18 months of age, he doesn’t expect this to affect them as much.

For seed stock producers, it should not be much of an imposition because they normally gather cattle once or twice a year. It would not be difficult for them to apply this ID system and it might actually be useful to them as many already use an official or unofficial ID for value-added programs.

“We believe when we transition to this system it will allow us to record this information much more quickly and accurately, and we believe it will help us ramp up our traceability system to where it’s comparable to the other countries in the world that export cattle,” Hall said. 

Electronic tags explained

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Hall says the biggest thing for cattle owners to understand is that they will not be required to tag every animal when the electronic tag rule goes into effect. The rules for animals that have to be tagged will be the same as the rules are right now, the actual tag and readers will be the only change.

There are two different types of electronic tags: low frequency and ultra-high frequency. USDA does not recommend one over the other—it is whatever producers prefer.

Low frequency tags have been around for about 20 years. Hall says they have a little microchip in them that can be read with a reader. The tags are relatively low cost—about $2 each. Readers can be purchased for about $350, however, higher quality readers run about $1,200. 

“The only bad thing about them is because it’s just a little microchip, you must be within 12 to 18 inches to read the tag,” Hall explained. “You basically have to have the cow in a chute or corralled to scan the tag.”

The ultra-high frequency tags have been around for about five years. 

“The neat thing about it is the reader can successfully scan a tag from 12 to 20 feet or more in some cases,” Hall said. “They make small, handheld readers but there are also bigger reader that can scan cattle running through a chute or alleyway.” 

Hall says to do this you really need three large readers with one on either side of the alley way and one above the chute because the scanner can only read tags if it is in direct line of sight. It will not read through metal or wood, but if set up correctly it works seamlessly. 

Some drawbacks to UHF is it does not give a verification beep for each tag scanned, like with low frequency, so there is a potential to miss scanning a tag when several calves run by the scanner in succession. Also, because you can read from a long distance, there is a possibility of reading tags that you do not intend, such as cows in a neighboring pen.

UHF tags are also a little bit larger because there is a little antenna inside them. The cost is fairly inexpensive—$1.50 to $2 per tag—but the cost would go down if they became mandatory and were being made in large quantities. 

Hall says there are only three UHF tags approved right now. There is not an international standard for the frequency of this technology although there is an international standard for low frequency. 

“The U.S. has stated this is what we’re using and we expect the rest of the world to go along with that, but it isn’t official yet,” he explained. “Eventually if we are going to have a really good traceability system in the U.S., and be able to find out where animals went in case of a really bad diseases, like foot-and-mouth disease, I think we’re going to have to use ultra-high frequency tags. We’re starting out gradually with just animals over 18 months, but stockers and feeders move a lot more than breeding cattle do and they get foot-and-mouth disease just like breeding cattle do. I think the low frequency will work for right now for the way we do business in Oklahoma, but what I hear from producers is if we’re going to have to do it and we will eventually have to use UHF. You might as well start out with that.”

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 580-748-1892 or [email protected].