OLYMPIA — The Washington State Department of Agriculture may adopt rules requiring producers to tag every cow with radio-frequency identification, a level of electronic monitoring opposed by some ranchers.
The department says the tags will help follow a cow from birth to slaughter, aiding animal-health officials to speedily respond to diseases and bringing the state in line with coming USDA standards.
“These (the rules) are all intended to track an animal within hours rather than within days,” State Veterinarian Brian Joseph told the Senate Agriculture Committee Nov. 14. “It’s very important we be able to do that rapidly because the more rapidly we can do that, the less economic impact there is.”
WSDA continues to work on its ability to trace animal diseases more than a dozen years after the first U.S. case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy appeared in Washington, The state currently records changes in livestock ownership, though the department says the system, partly based on self-reporting of sales, has gaps.
WSDA reports that only 5 percent of the state’s beef cows now have radio-frequency identification. Although 80 percent of dairy cows are electronically tagged, they come from a minority, 40 percent, of the dairies.
The department envisions that by no later than 2023 every ranch, dairy and farm with cattle will have a “premises identification number” and that every cow that leaves the premises will have a radio tag.
“We need an official identification number for that cow, that’s unique to that cow,” Joseph said. “The most efficient way to do that is with electronic identification.”
WSDA hasn’t made any formal proposals, but it’s also considering requiring all cattle in a public livestock market to have a radio tag before being presented for sale. Another requirement could be requiring all female cattle to be fitted with a radio tag when vaccinated for brucellosis or introduced into a breeding herd.
“I think those are big steps,” Washington State Dairy Federation policy director Jay Gordon said. “They certainly deserve careful thought and consideration.”
Gordon said some dairy farmers already electronically track the health and performance of each cow to improve their herds. Some producers may question the need for additional tracking, though others may see market advantages in being able to verify to consumers where the cows were born and raised, he said.
To track the movements of more cows, WSDA early last year set up an online system for dairies to self-report small sales. Previously sales between private parties of fewer than 15 head of dairy cows didn’t have to be reported. So far, only three small sales involving 49 head have been reported.
Stevens County rancher Ted Wishon said WSDA should plug gaps in the system before putting more rules on beef cattlemen. “Let’s fix the holes. Let’s not put everybody in the same bucket,” said Wishon, past president of the Cattle Producers of Washington.
WSDA collects brand, health and transaction records, and Wishon said that in an emergency he could readily provide WSDA with written details on the movements of his cows. “I can sit down and show you everywhere every one of my cows has been,” he said
But Wishon said he opposes having his cattle’s movements recorded in a government database.
“There’s certainly information I call propriety that I don’t think government should have at a push of a button,” he said.
“It sounds pretty good, like it’s for the public good, but it puts more burden on the producer. It just keeps getting more and more cumbersome,” Wishon said. “I do not see the cost-benefit to the producer.”
WSDA Director Derek Sandison said that brands identify herds, but radio-frequency identification is needed to track single animals.
“In today’s world of commerce, it’s absolutely essential that he have individual animal ID,” Sandison said. “There’s a job we need to do in terms of selling this to the whole livestock industry.”