The USDA will give away 8 million radio-frequency ear tags to cattle and bison ranchers, furthering the agency's goal to phase out metal identification tags.
The free ear tags will trace animals exposed to diseases and protect the livestock industry, USDA Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Greg Ibach said in a statement Wednesday.
"This will not only help offset the costs of switching to RFID tags, but also help us more quickly respond to potential disease events," he said.
Mandatory radio-frequency identification, or RFID, tags are supported by some producers as the 21st century way to track cattle and keep disease outbreaks from closing foreign markets. Others see RFID tags as intrusive, potentially costly and needless substitutes for time-tested methods of identification, such as brands.
The USDA has said it's committed to electronically tracking cattle from birth to slaughter. It's currently seeking comments on requiring cattle older than 18 months and shipped between states to have radio tags by Jan. 1, 2023.
The USDA said it distributed 1.1 million free ear tags in 38 states over the first seven months of this year. In addition to the 8 million new ear tags, the agency said it may buy more ear tags from three U.S. companies over the next five years.
Bill Bullard, CEO of R-CALF USA, a cattlemen's group opposed to mandatory RFID tags, said the giveaway seeks to prod ranchers into accepting electronic tracking.
"The 8 million ear tags is government trying to minimize the strong opposition from all corners of the industry," Bullard said. "This is an attempt by the government to expedite the transition to what they've been after all the time."
The USDA will distribute the RFID ear tags to state veterinarians. Washington's share will be almost 119,000 ear tags, said David Hecimovich, the state Department of Agriculture's animal disease traceability program coordinator.
The agriculture department will in turn send the tags to veterinarians, who can also order from the department free metal identification tags to give to producers. The recent trend has favored asking for RFID tags, according to department numbers.
So far in 2020, RFID tags are surpassing the distribution of metal tags by about 2 to 1. In 2019, the ratio was roughly reversed. In 2018, about eight metal tags were distributed for every one RFID tag.
Assistant State Veterinarian Amber Itle said she believes opposition to RFID tags has eased. "We don't hear as much complaining as we used to," she said.
The USDA's mass purchase of RFID ear tags should further adoption, she said. "I'm glad to see it stepped up finally."
The USDA did not disclose how much it will spend on the 8 million tags or how many tags it plans to buy over the next five years. Efforts to get that information from the agency were unsuccessful.
The USDA started taking comments in July on moving to RFID tags. The comment period ends Oct. 5. The agency says it will consider the comments and make a proposal.
It will take an act of Congress or a lawsuit to stop mandatory RFID tags, Bullard said. "It's certainly a done deal. The government is dead set on this."