(By Brandon Hansen/Chewelah Independent)
The WSDA is seeking input for a cattle industry-led task force to develop an implementation plan for RDIF tags in Washington. The state is planning on the radio tags, citing better disease traceability as the core reason for the move.
“Most of our state’s producers remember the significant market impact to the cattle industry in 2003 when a single Canadian cow with BSE was imported into Washington. Export losses for America’s beef industry totaled $3.2 billion to $4.7 billion in 2004. Cattle producers have yet to fully recover from the event. Most concerning, it took seven days of searching through paper records to trace the cow’s origins and some of the animals that had been exposed were never found,” wrote Assistant State Veterinarian Dr. Amber Itle in a recent article in the Washington Cattlemen’s Association publication.
The WSDA said they need producers to inform the agency how it can move forward. There has been some local opposition.
“We are concerned about this proposal for a number of reasons, but primarily because this kind of system will put family ranchers out of business in Washington State,” said Cattle Producers of Washington President Scott Nielsen. “This unproven technology is not needed and will burden ranchers with its costs and inefficiencies.”
Nielsen noted that Washington State already has both a brand program and an Animal Disease Traceability (ADT) system in place that cattle producers pay for via inspection fees and a 23 cents-a-head assessment for ADT. The ADT program, which aimed to improve disease traceability by making more transit paperwork electronic, is less than four years old and has not yet been fully implemented, Nielsen said.
“The state should not start mandating additional technologies when the current system is not proven. Beef producers have been faithfully using the brand system and paying the ADT fee while other cattle owners have failed to participate in the system,” said Nielsen. “What needs to be addressed is the segment of cattle owners, primarily dairy owners, who are refusing to comply with the law.”
However, Itle’s recent article in the WCA publication lays out why the state is implementing the program.
“With fewer but larger herds in concentrated areas, the risk for disease transmission is intensified and increases risk to producers as well as consumers,” she wrote.
Itle said producers and vets are still using silver metal clips and tags which are visual and hard to read, while also being prone to transcription errors on paperwork.
“Identification (RFID) would help close the gap for effective ADT by bringing the outdated 1950s system into the modern age,” Itle wrote.
The Cattle Producers of Washington have a problem with the technology and, in an official press release on the matter, stated that the radio tags could be impeded by metal corrals, weather and a lack of Wi-Fi/Internet connections as cited by a USDA study. Fraud is also possible as an RFID tag can be removed, allowing changes of ownership without an inspection. Software and scanners could be unreliable as well.
Canada has had mandatory RFID programs in cattle and slaughter facilities since 2001 and for sheeps, pigs and poultry since 2006 while cervids and goats have been mandated this year. Mexico implemented a mandatory national cattle ID program in 2018.
Canada and Mexico do not subsidize tags or equipment. Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Uruguay and the European Union all have mandatory electronic ADT programs.
The USDA has indicated that the same will be true for this country in the future.
Itle said in her article that an effective ADT program with RFID tags will be able to quickly trace a disease outbreak’s source and reduce financial damage to the cattle industry and the number of cattle suffering or dying.
And cattle move quite a bit in Washington. According to the WSDA, 160,000 cattle in Washington are exported while 822,100 head of cattle are imported into the state from 33 other states and four Canadian provinces. In addition, approximately 180,000 Mexican cattle were imported to Washington in 2017. The radio tags, Itle said, would identify cattle, record animal movement and then would be retired after animal harvest.
“An official, unique and permanent electronic identification tag must be applied to every bovine for a true ADT system to work,” Itle said. “All classes of cattle are equally vulnerable to diseases.”
While initial messages to producers say that the state will pay for the radio tags, some cattle producers are wondering how long that will last. They’re also concerned about this data being used by the wrong people, such as activists who could cause some trouble if they know the location of herds and farms. There’s also the age-old issue of farmers having to get used to new technology.
The Washington Cattlemen’s Association supports the move to radio tags for the disease-surveillance programs, Executive Vice President Sarah Ryan told the Capital Press. The organization, however has not taken a stand on requiring electronic tags on all cows over 18 months.
The WSDA is asking cattle producers with questions to contact the state vet office at 360-902-1878, Washington’s ADT Program 360-725-5493 or Dr. Amber Itle at 360-961-4129.