Advances in Animal Identification for Livestock
A combination of cloud-based software and improved rural internet infrastructure combine to advance animal identification in the beef industry.
Livestock identification technologies have been evolving over the past several years – both in beef as well as dairy, with dairy producers further advanced in adoption. Today, a combination of improved access and more effortless data transfer is helping cattle producers close the gap, and potential government regulations requiring the use of RFID tags are helping spur adoption.
“From a technology standpoint, the beef and dairy industries have embraced identification for a good number of years, just on slightly different paths,” said Paul Koffman, executive director of Livestock Technology Solutions, North America, for Merck Animal Health. “Both have embraced low-frequency RFID tags as a way of simplifying recordkeeping processes. There’s still a lot of opportunity in beef herds to further their adoption of this technology.”
For cow/calf producers, electronic identification can provide better data, which empowers producers to make and track management improvements of the entire herd. For feedlots, electronic identification provides the basis to improve transparency and traceability to the beef consumer, as well as help the feedlot manage their livestock records, Koffman explained.
Almost all beef producers use some form of identification, like visual-only ear tags or branding. These traditional forms of identification are more difficult to transfer as cattle are sold from cow/calf operations to backgrounder/stocker operations, then to feedlots, and, finally, to packers. As a result, the USDA has increased efforts to push for more permanent, individual identification of cattle.
In January 2023, the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) reintroduced a proposed rule to amend animal disease traceability regulations requiring ear tags to be both visually and electronically readable for all cattle and bison moved between states. The goal of this proposal is to improve traceability for cattle in the event of a disease outbreak.
USDA records show that approximately 11 million official, visually readable only – i.e., non-electronic identification (EID) ear tags – were used per year in fiscal years 2017 through 2021, which corresponds to 11% of the national population of cattle and bison. The government agency stated that electronic identification would allow shorter investigation times in instances of diseases, among other benefits.
Beyond governmental regulations, electronic identification that remains stable from seller to seller can give producers a mechanism to transfer data on performance. Typically, each owner uses their own identification methods – retagging animals upon arrival using their own RFID or visual ear tags. Retagging makes sharing data back to the original seller more cumbersome, if not impossible, Koffman noted.
“We are seeing increased interest for a portal to allow for the transfer of information between production systems of the beef industry,” he said. “First, the producers must be willing to share data. The cow/calf producer may think, ‘I’m doing all these things right; how can I get that information to flow through and potentially get that carcass information back?’ One RFID tag is a key piece to do just that.”
Currently, premium programs use EID to trace lifetime data about a single animal – almost from birth through its carcass characteristics. This benefits producers in premium programs and has the potential to grow to other segments. It also can help improve the perception of beef production to consumers, Koffman added.
“It’s an emerging push overall that the consumer base wants to know more about their food and where it’s coming from,” he said. “For producers, it can help identify and apply biopharmaceutical interventions, improve monitoring in feedlots, and all of that combined provides a full story about how the animal was raised.”
More animals than ever are receiving RFID tags, putting the industry closer to the goal of complete traceability from farm to table. The ability to store and share large amounts of information in the cloud – combined with improved internet capabilities in rural areas – is providing a great leap forward, Koffman said.
In addition to electronic identification, we also see an increase in the adoption and use of activity-monitoring devices. The dairy industry has been quicker to adopt activity monitors and other advanced identification technology. This space is quickly evolving in the beef market with new options for feedlot cattle.
Benefits to veterinarians
Adding activity monitoring devices goes beyond just a benefit to the producer and can also provide more benefits to veterinarians. Activity monitors can flag outliers based on the activity of the animal. This information could be reported to the producer – and possibly directly to the veterinarian – allowing for a quicker response.
“This could improve the quality of life for the rural veterinarian,” Koffman said. “We know mixed practitioners work with numerous smaller herds where the producers have other, full-time jobs. This technology could help identify outliers and alert the vet to go see them, possibly before the producer gets home from work.”
The same technology could improve the identification of sick cattle in feedlots where pen riders still rely on visual identification of an illness.
“For us, veterinarians can have the ability to read that tag and determine how to apply health protocols,” he explained. “We are working on dashboards for veterinarians that give an overview of all the herds they are working with, which would allow them to get better information and provide value back to their producers in terms of recommendations and protocols.”
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Photo credit: istockphoto.com/Clinton Austin