The Washington State Department of Agriculture made the first formal move Wednesday to electronically follow every cow in the state from birth to slaughter.
The department indicated it will propose replacing metal ID tags with radio-frequency identification, or RFID, on tens of thousands of cows. According to WSDA, electronic tags will be less prone to record-keeping errors and help track cattle as individuals, not just part of a branded herd.
“Updating our rules to incorporate RFID devices is an important first step in strengthening our state’s animal disease traceability system,” State Veterinarian Brian Joseph said in a written statement.
WSDA plans to mark all cows with a radio-frequency identification no later than 2023. WSDA says its ambitions are in line with USDA’s national goals.
WSDA envisions recording all movements of a cow from one premise to another, including small private sales between neighbors or trips to fairs. Reaction from producer groups has been mixed. Some ranchers see mandatory electronic tags as unnecessary and intrusive, and potentially costly.
WSDA says marking all cows with radio tags will be a multi-phase project. As a start, the department initiated rule-writing to automatically put radio tags on cattle under three circumstances:
• Female cattle vaccinated for brucellosis.
• Bulls tested for trichomoniasis.
• Sexually intact cattle and bison older than 18 months offered at public livestock markets.
In all cases, the cattle are now fitted with metal ID tags.
“It’s a small step, but they have to make the step to get on first base,” said Stevens County rancher Ted Wishon, past president of the Cattle Producers of Washington. He questioned whether the radio tags would be as durable and reliable as imprinted metal tags.
“I do oppose the move because it’s just sticking your foot in the door, and I don’t see the benefit,” Wishon said.
The Washington Cattlemen’s Association supports moving to radio tags for disease-surveillance programs. The organization has not taken a stance on requiring electronic tags on all cattle over 18 months, the association’s executive vice president, Sarah Ryan, said.
WSDA says it intends to supply producers with free radio tags, but that depends on funding from USDA.
“It’s going to cost somebody,” Wishon said. “The money is coming from some place. They’re not free.”
WSDA estimates 5 percent of beef cattle and 80 percent of dairy cows are currently fitted with radio tags. The department did not have an estimate of how the new rules would increase those percentages, but the regulations could apply to a large number of cattle.
Approximately 200,000 head of cattle were sold at four public livestock markets in 2016, according to WSDA. Some 151,371 female cattle were vaccinated for brucellosis, and 2,697 bulls were tested for trichomoniasis, the department reported.
WSDA says the state’s 2003 case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease, showed that one diseased animal can close export markets for years. Tracing where a sick cow has been by its brand is not feasible because the brand does not individually identify the animal, according to WSDA.
The department said it doesn’t expect to draft the rules or take public comments before mid-March. Agencies are required to give notice that they plan to write rules.