R-CALF member explains group’s opposition to RFID system

Jan Shepel
The USDA maintains that the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) ear tags speeds up data collection and improves animal disease traceability. The agency adds that the improved level of traceability is crucial to protect the long-term health, marketability and economic viability of the U.S. livestock industry.

One group that has been fighting the USDA’s plans to make radio-frequency animal identification (RFID) the law of the land (see main story) is R-CALF USA. Ken Fox, who runs an Angus/Angus-cross cow-calf operation in South Dakota with his wife, three sons and grandkids, has served as the cattle group’s Animal Identification Committee Chair for 15 years. So he has seen various government efforts to justify and codify this type of animal identification for more than a decade.

He told the Wisconsin State Farmer that the USDA’s new push to make all livestock owners rely on RFID tags as the only form of acceptable official animal identification in just a few years’ time “is just the same thing with a different name.”

Fox noted that the USDA tried to do the same thing a few years ago when they called it the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). That plan was met with overwhelming opposition and lawsuits; eventually the agency backed down.

Now, he said in a phone interview that they are calling it Animal Disease Traceability. The opposition from R-CALF and others who made official comments on the USDA’s proposal, centers on several factors. First, there is an error read rate of about 7 percent on the tags, Fox has learned from those who heavily utilize this technology.

Second, “the tag retention is horrible,” he said. “I’ve talked to many people who have used these RFID tags and their cows have lost 50 percent after five years. By year nine or ten only 14 percent of the tags were left; and our beef cows can be with us for 15 to 20 years, so that’s a serious concern.

“I don’t really know what USDA-APHIS is trying to accomplish with this,” he told us. “We eradicated brucellosis in this country without using RFID tags – there’s only a few elk and buffalo in the national parks that have this disease now.”

The metal eartags which have traditionally been placed in the animal’s ear to show vaccination for brucellosis (also known as Bangs) “have a lot better retention rate,” he said. The overall system of cattle identification, which also includes registered cattle brands and paper back tags for animals that are bound for slaughter, “has proven to be effective,” he says.

RELATED: USDA moves toward all-RFID system for officially identifying cattle

The cattle group also has concerns that what the USDA is doing may not be legal in terms of its process. “It looks like a comment period in order to have a comment period. What they need to do legally is to have an official rulemaking process. It seems like another end run around the rules to do something they know the livestock industry doesn’t want.”

Ken Fox

Fox and his family along with Tracy Hunt and family were named complainants in a suit brought against USDA by R-CALF and the New Civil Liberties Alliance to stop the RFID requirement in the USDA’s last push to enact this technology. “I’ve heard from a lot of other R-CALF members and others who are very happy we had done this. The phone calls and messages are all positive.”

Because of his interest in this subject, he has spent a great deal of time looking at the online comments people have made regarding the new RFID requirement. Fox said that while some people filing comments are in favor of it, the majority of the comments represent farmers and ranchers who are opposed to the RFID requirement. One of their concerns is the cost.

“The cost of the tags is the cheapest part of it. Readers are expensive and they would have to be installed in auction barns and all over. Those readers only last four or five years and have to be updated or replaced and we come back to the fact that those RFID tags don’t stand up as well as metal tags,” Fox told us.

“Dairy farmers tell me that their cattle lose tags all the time. Those farmers handle their cattle at least twice a day. They can replace lost tags. That just doesn’t work when we’ve got cattle on 10,000 or 30,000 acres of range land and we handle those cattle maybe twice a year. If they lose those tags, how are we going to know who those cattle are? This thing is a big disaster.”

Fox notes that many western cattle ranchers have a system of registered brands that work well to designate which ranch the cows or calves belong to. That system, coupled with the other forms of identification that have been used for decades – metal ear tags for vaccinations and back tags for slaughter animals – have worked very well. “I’ve been to many listening sessions and heard a lot of negative feedback on RFID. The USDA doesn’t seem to know what ‘no’ is,” Fox said.

Because of his interest and committee leadership on this issue, Fox is aware of what’s happening in other countries. He said he has had close contact with producers in Australia where RFID is mandated. Producers from Australia have told him and his committee to “do whatever you can do to fight it. It doesn’t work,” he related.

Livestock producers say the radio frequency id tags are pricey and that many of those tags are lost after being placed in the ears of the animals.

Fox said a good friend of his has been using RFID tags on calves at weaning and tells him that 15 percent of those tags are lost within the next six months.

Besides tag retention, many in opposition to the RFID system proposed by USDA have “huge concerns,” says Fox, about the aggregation of digital data on farmers and ranchers, their locations and their animals that could potentially be hacked or could be sought as part of Freedom of Information requests by outside parties. He and his group think that the existing system of animal identification is working just fine.

“Years ago when USDA proposed the NAIS someone told me this story – NASA spent millions trying to develop a pen that could work in sub-zero temperatures and zero gravity. The Russians just used a pencil.

“Right now USDA is trying to use a whole bunch of money trying to get something done when a simple thing is the solution,” Fox added.

Official comments

In its official comments to USDA, R-CALF requested that APHIS withdraw its proposal on the grounds that it changes federal law which expressly grants America's cattle farmers and ranchers the option of using various forms of animal identification, including metal eartags, to lawfully achieve disease traceability.

The group commented that the APHIS proposal “deprives America's cattle farmers and ranchers of the very legal rights” that current Federal law grants to them – “the flexibility to choose among lower-cost technologies such as metal eartags.”

The comments also mention that the proposal contains a “hidden mandate” because cattle producers must first register their premises and secure a premises identification number as a precondition to obtaining the soon-to-be mandated RFID eartags.

The group also maintains that the USDA is mandating RFID without a formal rulemaking process. Instead, the agency is attempting to enact its mandate with a simple notice.

One group taking the opposite view represents the nation’s dairy cooperatives. In official comments supporting the agency’s move, National Milk Producers Federation president and CEO Jim Mulhern said his group “commends USDA-APHIS for taking this next step in moving animal identification forward, with the use of RFID tags for official animal identification for dairy cattle.

“A national animal identification system can provide immediate access to relevant information in an animal disease or food safety crisis that could endanger the entire dairy chain, while protecting farmers’ privacy,” he added.

Jim Mulhern

Mulhern said the U.S. dairy industry has long advocated modernizing animal identification and disease traceability systems. Farmer organizations including NMPF, the American Jersey Cattle Association, Holstein Association USA, Inc., National Association of Animal Breeders, National Dairy Herd Information Association and Dairy Calf and Heifer Association formed a group called IDairy to collectively advance official mandatory animal identification to aid disease traceability.

Since 2009, the program created under NMPF called the National Dairy FARM Program – Farmers Assuring Responsible Management – has also recommended the use of official RFID tags for all dairy cattle.