The United States Department of Agriculture has again backed off on a requirement that cattle and bison traveling across state lines must have radio frequency identification tags. The mandate was introduced in April, but was withdrawn Oct. 25 after pushback from ranchers and industry professionals said the regulation is unsustainably driving up the cost of beef production.

In April, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a part of the USDA, published the 2019 RFID Plan, which was originally intended to go into effect Jan. 1. The most notable requirement for ranchers was the mandate that sexually intact livestock over 18 months of age intended for slaughter, exhibition, dairy production, and rodeo or recreational events have a radio frequency identification ear tag.

More than a decade earlier, the USDA considered a similar regulation, but at that time, the initiative was swiftly defeated after vocal protest during the public comment period. This time, the effort was introduced in a less conventional way – a requirement stated on a “Factsheet” about animal traceability in the rollout of a larger program focused on food supply safety.

In the case of a disease outbreak, fast identification and traceability can minimize the potentially detrimental effects to public health and a nation’s food supply. While there is little dispute that RFID tracking has the potential to be more effective than conventional tags, brands or other forms of livestock identification, ranchers across the nation have balked at the price tag of implementation, which is estimated to be more than a billion dollars industry-wide.

“Livestock traceability is very important in the event of a disease outbreak,” Wyoming State Veterinarian Jim Logan said. “Over the years, we have been relatively successful at conducting tracebacks using metal tags and brand movement information. However, I believe that tracing could be more efficiently done if RFID were in use, and if the technology was implemented to conduct business at the speed of commerce.”

Malcolm Harvey is a Wyoming rancher with an interest in both sides of the issue. He runs a cow-calf operation in southwest Wyoming near Fort Bridger. He is also co-founder and president of Fort Supply Technologies, a livestock equipment company that specializes in RFID livestock tags and reading equipment.

“Previously, it was perceived as big-government intrusion,” Harvey said. “I have great empathy for that, and I am against government intervention. At the same time, I see there is a need for some government support in issues that transcend state boundaries. We need to support the industry by minimizing the amount of destruction that can happen in the event of a disease outbreak, and that is the message the USDA is having terrible difficulty getting to producers.”

Existing livestock identification tags cost pennies per unit, and have numerical and sometimes alphabetical characters that must be manually read for proper recording. Harvey pointed out the obvious opportunity for error when a team of at least two people catch each animal in a chute and one person reads while the other records. He estimated the probability of error is about 5% per person, and that number goes up with fatigue, distraction, or difficult to read worn tags.

“The problem is how do you track the animal with that metal clip number for the rest of its life? You can’t effectively read it unless you have somebody trained that’s not fatigued,” Harvey said, adding that a reader and recorder can account for two points for possible human error, which is estimated to occur about 5% of the time.

The newer radio frequency ID tags cost about $2 each, which is a dramatic price increase. Instead of spending $2 per 100 head of cattle, a rancher would have to shell out $200. What they offer, though, is quick individual identification of each animal with a greatly reduced probability of mistakes.

A “short-range” livestock ID tag still requires a head catch and close swipe of a reading device, as other metals in the environment can reduce efficacy. A “long range” tag does not require a head catch and can provide identification numbers from multiple animals without being hindered by interference of other nearby metal objects.

Harvey said while the tags provide a tremendous productivity value in the scenario where a herd of cows is at the sale barn and a trucker is antsy to get on the road, it’s a cost being unfairly shifted to producers.

“It’s taking my money that I have worked really hard for and not providing any value from which I can become more profitable,” he said, noting the cost of cow-calf operations is steadily climbing.

“Another key point I recognize as a producer is 10 years ago, I didn’t have to vaccinate my calves a second time as a precondition before shipping,” he explained. “Now, I have to vaccinate, or I don’t have a market for my calves. The industry has been changing separate from the world of electronic ID.

“My personal concern is small ranches like mine are on the doorstep of backing away from this kind of industry,” Harvey said. “We can’t afford it anymore.”

R-CALF USA, a cattle organization based out of Billings, Montana, filed a lawsuit Oct. 4 in U.S. District Court in Casper along with the New Civil Liberties Alliance and ranchers Kenny and Roxie Fox of Belvidere, South Dakota, and Tracy and Donna Hunt of Newcastle, Wyoming. The plaintiffs argue the 2019 RFID Plan is “nothing short of a nullification of the most important and substantive aspects of the 2013 Final Rule by, among other things, mandating the use of the most inflexible animal identification technology available, by imposing what is the most costly type of identification system in use, and by reversing the prohibition on mandated RFID.”

Furthermore, the suit claims the 2019 RFID Plan did not follow the process of providing a notice and comment period and failed to publish it in the Federal Register.

Eighteen days after the lawsuit was filed, the USDA reversed its position on the RFID tag requirement.

“Since the Factsheet was posted, APHIS has listened to the livestock industry’s feedback,” APHIS said in a statement. “In light of these comments and current executive branch policy, APHIS believes that we should revisit those guidelines.”

The April Factsheet was removed from the USDA website at the end of October, and the statement further elaborates the RFID requirement is no longer representative of current agency policy because of presidential executive orders that were issued Oct. 8.

“Recent executive orders have highlighted the need for transparency and communication on the issues set forth in the Factsheet before placing any new requirements on American farmers and ranchers,” the APHIS statement said.

Harvey said he would like to see the program modified to include federal funding for ranchers to offset the cost of the RFID tags. Another possibility would be for individual states to develop an industry-led trackability system that works within the parameters of regional operation.

While this unpopular mandate seems to be tabled for the immediate future, APHIS affirms a continued belief that RFID devices are the best possible protection against rapid spread of diseases and are necessary to meet expectations of buyers. However, in order to get the regulation accepted via the formal rulemaking process, the agency will have to appeal to the minds and checkbooks of cow-calf operations.

“If the industry is not on board with this, it will be more difficult to make the RFID program a success,” Logan said.

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