Everyone's Talking ID

Dave Maples, Lexington, KY, says cattle identification (ID) has become the cattle industry's predominant production issue.

“Everywhere you go in this business — and with everyone you talk to — ID dominates the discussions,” says Maples, executive vice president of the Kentucky Catlemen's Association. “It's the hottest topic around — our phone has been ringing off the hook.”

The questions swirling around livestock ID have accelerated since earlier this fall when the U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA) threw its hat in the ring with the U.S. Animal Identification Plan (see sidebar).

The plan's goal is to develop a compulsory nationwide standardized program capable of identifying all premises and animals that had direct contact with a foreign animal disease within 48 hours of its discovery.

40,000+ “Premises”

As the largest cattle-producing state east of the Mississippi River, Kentucky is home to more than 1.1 million beef cows and ranks 5th nationally in total number of farms — with about 40,000 beef producers.

“This fact in itself makes ID a big, contentious issue,” says Maples. “We have so many small producers and so many ‘premises’ with multiple family members. All these folks wonder how the ID plan will affect them — and how they'll comply.”

One answer, Maples believes, will be in setting up “tagging sites” at auction markets, stockyards and collection points used by order buyers. The idea is that animals not already identified can be tagged at the first point of movement off the premise of origin.

In fact, he's working through a federal grant to the Kentucky Beef Network (KBN) to help set up facilities to handle radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology.

“We want to equip those places with computers and RFID readers — and train people in their use,” says Maples.

In Kentucky, the focus of ID appears to be more on cattle marketing than necessarily on animal disease traceback.

John Stevenson, KBN director, says ID can be used as a vehicle to identify and add value to the superior cattle that are the product of the KBN program.

“Our producers have put a lot of work into beef quality assurance (BQA),” he says. “RFID technology gives us a cost-effective means to track those cattle through the marketing chain.”

Five-State Beef Initiative

Kentucky is also a member of the Five-State Beef Initiative (FSBI), a project that's part of a large USDA grant that also includes Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. Producer requirements for participation in this project include BQA certification. Other components are water quality plans, education in genetics and cattle marketing.

Data management will be included in FSBI training meetings this year. Producers will be asked to provide records on their calves including sire and dam information.

Benefits of FSBI include 50% cost sharing on carcass data collection for two years, and producers will be provided feedlot performance and carcass data on their calves.

“These cattle were identified with electronic ear tags and will be tracked through processing,” adds Stevenson. “Things like this initiative just add to the interest we're seeing in RFID technology.”

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why must a national identification (ID) program be mandatory?

    At this point, USDA isn't saying the program is mandatory. But its stands to reason that if the aim is traceback on all animals within 48 hours, a voluntary program won't work. A mandatory program might not be how the program starts, but it will end up there.

  • Why is radio-frequency identification (RFID) the technology of choice for a national ID program?

    The guiding principle of the national ID plan is to build a system that allows traceback of all livestock within 48 hours. And, to do it as easily, efficiently and cost effectively as possible for producers.

    Given the geographic size of the U.S., its cattle population and the number of operations, RFID has been cited as the most efficient means. RFID devices are the most common form of electronic ID used in U.S. cattle. And, the ear tag is the most widely used method of attaching RFID to the animal.

    RFID eliminates the potential mistakes of transferring data by hand. It's also the most cost-effective way to associate data. Imagine the labor costs, and the recording mistakes, that would be possible if auction markets had to hire people to transfer cattle ID numbers by hand.

  • What about biometric ID methods such as retinal and iris scanning and DNA testing?

    As the plan evolves, there will be room for other technologies as the need arises. RFID's strength is that its use is widespread. Therefore, it's considered the fastest route toward implementing a national system in the cattle industry.

    There will be species differences, however. The equine industry, for instance, might balk at putting RFID tags in horses' ears. It's up to each species to decide.

  • What would such a national ID program cost and who would pay?

    The U.S. Animal Identification Plan estimates that implementation costs for a national livestock ID program would be around $500 million for the first six years. This would cover the costs of communication, infrastructure, administration and startup.

    How and who will pay what still remains to be settled, but most countries with national programs have utilized government-industry partnerships.

    It's up to the industry to provide a plan for funding, and alternatives are under discussion. Right now, the national ID push falls under animal health, but a case could potentially be made for cost share with homeland security.

  • What about producer liability through such a mandatory system? Will producers be more or less at risk should a food safety problem emerge?

    Certainly, some producers are worried they'll be blamed for problems over which they had no control once animals left their premises. But, elective collection of data beyond what a national program would require could protect producers in such cases. This type of elective information would include things like management practices employed, animal health programs, other inputs, etc.

    Producer liability shouldn't change under a national ID program, however, adds Robert Fourdraine, manager of the Wisconsin Livestock ID Consortium. Currently, the producer is liable for knowingly marketing an animal unfit for human consumption. That will still be the case under a national ID system. But, it's doubtful any system could track contaminated ground beef, for instance, to its farm of origin, he adds.

  • How about data privacy? Who will have access to the information?

    Data privacy is another area to be worked out, but everyone involved agrees it is an area of prime concern. They also agree that the data collected is intended solely for the use of animal health officials in the event that traceback is needed.

  • How will the effort to create an ID system progress from here?

    A work plan has been accepted that will serve as the base line to move on developing a program. See the report at www.usaip.info.

    That document includes a timeline for moving a program through the development and implementation stages. But final rulemaking is a ways off.

    The work plan is currently in a 60-day comment period that ends Dec. 31. In addition, species groups, which will develop implementation plans for their respective industries, are now being formed. It's hoped that the work of these groups will be completed by March or April 2004.

    Producers need to inform themselves about the program, then register their feedback.

  • Which countries currently have national livestock ID programs?

    Canada, New Zealand and the European Union and Great Britain have mandatory programs. Australia's program is voluntary, except for the state of Victoria where electronic ear tagging is compulsory. Japan is fine-tuning and expanding its mandatory program to cover farm to fork.

    Meanwhile, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay have begun to implement national ID systems, and Mexico is moving that way, as well. See “Around The ID World,” p. 52.

  • Canada has a mandatory system, but was still devastated by bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Didn't the program work?

    Actually, the Canadian program worked as intended. The program's aim was to provide a means to quickly trace suspect animals to identify its production stops and other animals it may have contacted. The system played a major role in Canada's BSE investigation to find offspring from the infected herd.

  • What's the relationship between individual animal ID and country-of-origin labeling (COOL)?

    There is no legislated connection, though some system of animal documentation is needed to comply with COOL legislation.

    Animal ID is an animal disease control tool. In the event of an animal disease outbreak, its aim is to allow the tracking of any animal within 48 hours. For all practical purposes, individual animal ID ends at the processing level.

    Meanwhile, COOL is a beef marketing tool. Its purpose is to identify to consumers at the retail meat case the country (or countries) where the animal was born, raised and fed. The idea behind COOL is that proponents think American consumers will prefer U.S. beef product to foreign product.

  • What is your advice to producers anxious about such a program?

    Assuming the funding falls into place as outlined in the work plan accepted by the U.S. Animal Health Association, enterprising managers can utilize the system as the foundation to add tools and services that will build more focus into their herd management. Take the time to learn about the program so that, when it does come, you can make it work for you.

Explaining ISO Compliance

When you first begin trying to learn the language of radio-frequency identification (RFID) and electronic-data capture in the cattle business, understanding two terms could be the difference between having lots of product options or none at all.

Specifically, ISO 11784 and ISO 11785 are tempting to skip over because they sound so technical, and they are. But all you really need to know about them is this: The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is a non-government organization that has become the gold standard for establishing technical standards for various products and services.

All similar products and services, no matter where they are manufactured or provided around the world, must meet these common standards to qualify for compliance. The notion is that if you utilize an ISO-compliant product or service here in the U.S., it also will be in compliance anywhere in the world.

Moreover, ISO standards create a common means for communication when it comes to describing the technical aspects of specific products and services. Thus, both suppliers and users know what to expect if compliance is met.

Think of it like an international breed registry. By adopting common standards, no matter where in the world you purchased a bull of a particular breed, you would know what standards it was held to and what you can expect in terms of performance.

In the case of RFID, ISO 11784 sets the international standard for the data structure that is acceptable on transponders (electronic ear tags). Consequently, a producer using ISO-compliant tags is ensuring those tags will fit within any ISO-compliant system. The alternative is using a non-compliant tag that may or may not be accepted within other systems.

Likewise, ISO 11785 defines the acceptable common technical standards of low radio frequency that must exist between transponders and transceivers (readers) in compliant devices. In order to qualify as an ISO 11785-compliant reader, devices must be able to read both ISO-compliant full-duplex and half-duplex transponders (see “Mix And Match” p. 18).

Furthermore, as new technologies come along, those not yet falling within current ISO standards come with an added element of risk — if these standards are never developed for the technology, that may limit their widespread adoption.

What ISO Is

ISO (International Organization for Standardization) is the world's largest developer of standards. The standards contribute to making the development, manufacturing and supply of products and services more efficient, safer and cleaner, while making trade between countries easier and fairer.

They provide governments with a technical base for health, safety and environmental legislation. They aid in transferring technology to developing countries. ISO standards also safeguard consumers and users of products and services, as well as making life simpler.

ISO is a network of the national standards institutes of 147 countries — one member per country — with a Central Secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland, to coordinate the system.

ISO is a non-governmental organization occupying a special position between the public and private sectors. It's a bridge across which consensus can be reached on solutions that meet both the requirements of business and the broader needs of society. ISO standards are voluntary, market-driven, are based on consensus of interested parties and are technical agreements that provide the framework for compatible technology worldwide. For more on ISO, visit http://www.iso.ch/iso/en/ISOOnline.frontpage.

Plugging Into A New Traceback World

In its most simple form, animal identification (ID) became necessary as soon as humans domesticated the first cattle, sheep or goat. And, like any other venture that endures, develops and grows, the system evolved to meet new conditions and needs.

Somewhere along the line, the need for something more verifiable than one man's word or memory against that of another necessitated the adoption of more permanent methods of animal ID. Depictions found by archaeologists of ancient Egyptians using hot-iron brands attest to that contention.

Later, as the scientific method developed and various performance measures demonstrated the production differences between individual animals, livestock owners strived to further differentiate livestock. Ear notching, tattoos, tagging, etc., were some of the resulting technologies adopted to further differentiate animals by age, parentage, individual performance traits, etc.

Today, the livestock and meat trade is much different than even 20 years ago. Modern transportation whisks humans, animals and products across countries or the world in a matter of minutes or hours. Where 20 or 30 years ago, foreign trade in livestock and meat was barely a blip in annual market tabulations, today it makes up a growing chunk of the industry's annual take.

Those foreign dollars bring with them dangers and responsibilities. That lucrative potential has prompted livestock industries to work to meet the specific demands of foreign customers in terms of quality, price and value.

Increasingly, what those foreign customers — and domestic customers, as well — are demanding is a greater assurance of food safety. Who can blame them, particularly after the recent sensational outbreaks in Europe and other countries of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), as well as and foot-and-mouth disease (FMD)?

What those outbreaks also illustrated was the overnight economic devastation such outbreaks can bring to an affected nations' livestock industry.

Until last spring, the U.S. and Canada, the world's dominant producers and purveyors of high-quality beef, were untouched by those outbreaks. Protected on their coasts by oceans, the two countries were both vigilant and proud of the effectiveness of their animal disease surveillance programs.

But on May 20, Canada announced it had confirmed a case of BSE in a single Alberta cow. That single case devastated Canada's beef industry. Stripped of its access to world markets for cattle and beef products, the impact on the Canadian economy is estimated to be $2.5 billion thus far.

The slamming of foreign market doors all over the world to exports of live cattle and beef products from Canada was one factor that contributed to the extraordinary run of prices for all classes of cattle in the U.S. this summer and fall. The episode also served to fan a sense of urgency in the U.S. to develop a national livestock ID and traceback system.

Anxiety in the U.S. spiked this summer when Japan — traditionally, the top destination for exports of high-quality U.S. beef — announced it would close its borders to U.S. beef imports if the U.S. couldn't verify the product wasn't of Canadian origin. Perhaps it was a market protection play, but Japan, still smarting from the effects of its own BSE nightmare that began in fall 2001, claimed it wanted to protect its domestic industry against re-infection, as well as calm an anxious Japanese public.

ID Effort Was Underway

Actually, motions to develop an underpinning for a national livestock ID system in the U.S. were underway in earnest before the discovery of BSE in Canada. Talked about for years, in early 2002, the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA), a national forum for building consensus and advancing solutions for animal agriculture, organized a task force of approximately 70 representatives from more than 30 stakeholder groups to research the issue.

That task force produced a National Identification Work Plan, which it presented in October 2002 to the U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA), a key advising group to government. USAHA accepted the plan with a resolution that called for Veterinary Services (VS) in USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to establish a U.S. National Animal Identification Development (USAID) team. Its charge was to develop a national plan using the work plan as a guide.

That team was comprised of various committees and scores of livestock industry folks representing a cross-section of producers, producer groups, animal health care providers, state and federal government officials, etc. The team delivered its recommendations for a mandatory national plan to USAHA in October 2003. The recommendations, accepted by USAHA, set the following timetable:

  • Premises ID on all U.S. cattle by July 1, 2004. This would require standardized premises ID numbers be established for all livestock operations, market facilities, assembly points, exhibitions and processing plants. “Livestock” includes bison, beef and dairy cattle, swine, sheep, goats, camelids (alpacas and llamas), horses, cervids (deer and elk), eight species of poultry and 11 species of animals raised in aquaculture.

  • All animals moving in interstate commerce to be identified with official USAID individual or group/lot numbers by July 1, 2005, and with interstate movement of all cattle, swine and small ruminants reported to the official database.

  • All animals moving within intrastate commerce must be identified with official USAID individual or group/lot numbers by July 1, 2006, with intrastate movement reported to the official database.

These recommendations for a mandatory national livestock ID program were put forth with the sole purpose of disease surveillance. Such a system is needed, USAID team members said, in order to enable traceback of animals suspected of carrying a foreign animal disease, and all their previous production locations, within 48 hours of the discovery of the disease.

Much remains to be done to move from these recommendations to a reality where every head of U.S. livestock is identifiable and traceable within 48 hours. One big question is who will pay for it? Another is who or which entities will have access to the information?

Other Potential Benefits

While the purpose of the ID work plan recommendations is solely to build a quicker response time to animal disease outbreaks, such a system would also pay dividends to the livestock industry, and the economy as a whole. It would help provide greater food safety assurance both domestically and in foreign export, and allow continued global market access for U.S. cattle and beef products

But, there are other potential benefits, as well. For one, such a program of individual animal ID could provide the foundation on which individual producers can add capabilities to collect individual animal performance data on their cattle. Such information could help producers better define, document and market the assets — either in performance or management protocols — of individual cattle.

Matters Of Privacy

Low-cost, radio frequency identification (RFID) systems will soon become commonplace throughout the business-to-business and business-to-consumer marketplace.

In making this prediction, Simson L. Garfinkel, Cambridge, MA, a researcher with the Laboratory for Computer Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says we need assurances that personal privacy is protected and policies and technologies are put in place to limit exploitation and increase personal security.

Much of the work to date on RFID systems has been in the areas of engineering and electronic product codes. Auto-identification systems are expected to undergo two fundamental changes within the coming years, says Garfinkel, a world-renowned guru in the realm of electronic information technology.

The first change will be the way RFID codes are read and automatically processed; the second change involves the codes themselves.

“These issues must be addressed in the design, implementation and deployment of the system to protect the privacy of individuals,” he explains. Ubiquitous deployment of RFID tags could pose some challenges to user privacy:

  • Tags could be read by unauthorized readers.

  • RFID tags could be read covertly.

  • A database could be used to build long-term tracking associations between tags and holders.

Garfinkel says much of the current thinking on RFID privacy issues is based on the Code of Fair Information Practice developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Education in 1973.

“Any organization creating, maintaining, using or disseminating records of identifiable personal data must assure the reliability of the data for their intended use and must take precautions to prevent misuses of the data,” he says.

In an effort to take RFID and database security beyond this code, Garfinkel testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on computer privacy issues. He proposes a “Bill of Rights” for RFID systems (at right).

RFID Tomorrow

It's widely believed that RFID tags will migrate into consumer items as the price of tags drops. It only takes a little imagination to figure how RFID might find application in the food business.

For example, individually serialized RFID tags could be embedded into individual consumer packages at the site of sorting or processing. These tags could then be used to track the packages from the processor through distribution and ultimately to retail shelves.

Garfinkel says that by giving each package or unit a unique serial number, RFID would allow the manufacturer to:

  • Track product in the supply chain.

  • Maintain product identity.

  • Pinpoint and prevent theft and diversion.

  • Locate tainted goods on store shelves.

  • Alert the consumer to product recalls.

The technology could also permeate consumers' lives to a large degree.

“Your house, your food, even your clothes, might someday be permeated with such tags,” Garfinkel explains. “A reader built into your washing machine might automatically warn you that the dyes in your red shorts aren't colorfast and will ruin your yellow blouse.”

Microwave ovens might read the tags in frozen-dinner packages and automatically calibrate to cook food properly.

He says tag-embedded meat packaging is already under development that could help trace the spread of E. coli 0157:H7 and other food-borne contaminants.

For more information on security of RFID systems go to http://www.simson.net/.

Bill Of Rights

Simson L. Garfinkel's Bill of Rights consists of five guiding principles for the creation and deployment of RFID systems.

  • The right to know if a product contains an RFID tag.

  • The right to have embedded RFID tags removed, deactivated or destroyed when a product reaches the final consumer.

  • The right to first-class RFID alternatives: Consumers should not lose other rights if they decide to opt out of RIFD or exercise an RFID tag's “kill” feature.

  • The right to know what information is stored inside their RFID tags.

  • The right to know when, where and why an RFID tag is being read.

Around The ID World


In 2002, the National Livestock Identification Scheme (NLIS) initiated a system of permanent identification (ID). The system is voluntary, except in Victoria, and uses devices such as ear tags and rumen boluses imbedded with an electronic microchip (with matched ear tags). The device is read electronically by readers at sale yards, abattoirs or on farm and the information sent to the national database via e-mail, fax or mail.

The database is able to store and provide information such as animal disease and residue status, market eligibility, lost, stolen and mortgaged cattle and commercial information.

A username and password are used to access the database. The Cattle Council of Australia has endorsed a 14-digit, whole-of-life breeder tag that will identify the state, region, herd, year of issue and individual animal.

The program is run by SAFEMEAT, an industry and government partnership, while the program is delivered by Meat and Livestock Australia.


Currently, the only system of compulsory animal ID used is branding. If animals are transported, a sanitary movement permit issued by the local veterinary office must accompany the animals. There is no legal obligation for the farmer to keep stock records on the farm.

A national task force on livestock ID has been established to determine the most appropriate system for Argentina. The Argentine beef industry relies on international markets and recognizes that lack of ID and traceability could present barriers to trade in the future.


For many reasons, including disease control, Brazil is phasing in a mandatory national cattle ID and traceability system.

Starting in June 2002, all beef for export to the European Union (EU) had to be enrolled in the program. The deadline for animals destined to other foreign markets was December 2003.

Producers located in foot-and-mouth disease (FMD)-free areas are to be in the program by the end of 2005. By 2007, all cattle and buffalo in the country must be in the program.

Some Brazilian cattlemen accuse the government of using the ID system to plot with the large meat packers and exporters/importers, exploiting the cattle farmers by controlling meat prices.


Canada's program stipulates that a national ID ear tag be applied by the time an animal leaves the herd of origin. As a minimum requirement, the ear tag consists of a visible unique number, bar code and Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA) logo. As a result of readability problems with the bar-code system, however, CCIA is now studying a move to radio-frequency ID.

The numbers are assigned by CCIA to tag manufacturers and tags are distributed through authorized service centers and other distributors. The service centers maintain records of which numbers went to which producers. Primary producers are not required to maintain records. At the packing plant, the unique number will be maintained up to and including the point of carcass inspection.

In the event of a health or safety issue involving that animal, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) will be given access by the CCIA to the record of the herd of origin. Starting from both the herd of origin and the last location of the animal, CFIA will trace from both points to determine the source of the problem.

European Union (EU)

After January 1, 2000, all livestock were to be tagged with one ID tag in each ear by 20 days after birth. The ID code follows the animal through a mandatory meat labeling system.

A “passport” for each head of livestock (cattle, sheep and goats) is issued within 14 days of notification of its birth. The passport contains ID code, birth date, sex, breed or coat color, ID code of the dam and sire, ID code of the farm of birth and all farms where the animal has been kept. Animals may be moved only if accompanied by their passports.


Japan, hit by eight cases of BSE in the past two years, passed legislation in June to implement a compulsory system of full traceability of cattle from the farm through retail sale. All cattle must be individually eartagged and information, including the ID number, breed, sex and production history, must be entered into a national database. In addition, new regulations are proposed to require producers to maintain records on feed use and feed suppliers.

The system is largely designed to assuage food safety fears among Japanese consumers. In fact, one company marketing Wagyu beef offers a computerized system that allows consumers at point of purchase (or on their home computer) to key in a 10-digit number that is carried on the beef product label. Thus, consumers can access such information as the animal's birth date, breed, origin, photo of the producer, and the results of BSE tests performed on that animal. Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries tests every carcass for BSE.

The Japanese government also mandates country-of-origin labeling on all imported products at retail, but doesn't require traceability at this time.


The Confederación Nacional Ganadera (CNG), the national cattlemen's association of Mexico, is exploring technology with the goal of both individually identifying cattle and labeling the beef products derived from them. The CNG proposes the implementation of a system of voluntary electronic ID.

The operation of this system would be under the supervision of a non-profit- making body established by the cattle producers' organization.

New Zealand

As of July 1, 1999 every person who owns or is in charge of cattle or deer must participate in the compulsory ID of cattle and deer.

A herd number is required to be printed on official tags issued to that person. The ID program will allow for persons to use other herd/farm/business identifiers on official tags. A national herd register will link approved ID numbers to those persons in charge of a herd.

The herd register will also record the issue of devices that either carry the unique herd number or, as in the case of radio frequency devices, have a unique number linked to that herd number.

Cattle/deer whose first movement after reaching one month of age is directly to a registered slaughter premises are to be identified with either an official primary ear tag or a direct-to-slaughter device. In all other cases of movement from the herd, the cattle/deer are to be identified with both an official primary ear tag and an official secondary identification device.

United Kingdom (UK)

The current UK system follows EU-wide rules on beef labeling. The rules are intended to meet consumers' concern that cattle and the meat from them should be more easily traceable.

The British Cattle Movement Service (BCMS) now operates a system tracking every calf, cow and bull registered from birth to death. The ID protocol is strict. Each calf must be marked with double ear tags at birth. Producers then apply for a passport with numbers corresponding to the ear tags.

BCMS uses a bar code and optical character recognition system that can decipher hand-written letters and numbers. Reports of cattle movements can also be sent electronically. Passport applications must be accurately completed and sent to the BCMS within 15 days of tagging. Movements of cattle must be registered within 15 days and deaths must be reported within seven days.


Uruguay is moving toward a mandatory individual ID system on cattle through ear tags. It's part of Uruguay's efforts to comply with EU import requirements.

Mix And Match

It's a toss-up. Even those who have already made substantial long-term investment in radio-frequency identification (RFID) for cattle, along with attendant electronic data capture, are torn as to whether cost or frustration is the key reason the industry has been so slow to adopt a technology that offers so much potential.

Cost is an obvious contender. Whether it's 50¢/head or $2 or more, most producers are reluctant to spend more money without some assurance they can at least break even on the added outlay. Even if cattle producers are ultimately forced into it through a mandated national ID system, most will do so grudgingly unless they see an economic incentive (see “Bigger is Cheaper,” p. 22).

RFID is supposed to automate the process of collecting data and make the process more accurate. But, try telling that to a feedlot processing crew with 400 animals to go that's already jiggled every plug and joggled every dial and can't get that thing to work, or do so consistently.

Likewise, try convincing a cow-calf producer about the joys of early adoption after the RFID carcass data he was counting on, disappears. Or, the guy who changes systems only to find there's no way to incorporate the information gathered from the previous system without re-inputting years of data.

The Basic Components of RFID

An RFID system consists primarily of the tag (or transponder) itself, which houses a unique ID number and potentially other data; and the transceiver (or reader) that provides power to the tag so that the tag can send information to the reader. Once it receives the data, the reader then sends this information on to the data accumulator (think in terms of laptop, handheld, etc.). Then all of this information is interpreted and sorted out by the software involved (see “Basic Components,” p. 14).

Though still relatively new to the cattle business, RFID technology has been around a long time. Even in the cattle business, where the environment is conducive to knocks and bumps, RFID technology can take a lot of punishment. Unfortunately, in too many cases, users report that without at least some retrofitting of hardware or add-on software and tinkering, trying to make otherwise sturdy, functioning components from one manufacturer work with those of another is akin to welding steel with a glass rod.

Certainly, utilizing only components — an entire RFID system — from a single manufacturer may be a solution within a specific operation, or even within a specific industry segment. Where you deal with lots of cattle coming from lots of sources, though, that isn't practical. Plus, many producers prefer more price competition on the input side rather than less. Never mind the fact that components from one manufacturer — a tag, for instance — have proven in some conditions to actually work better with another's company's reader than its own.

The crux is that a growing number of producers are trying to feel their way through the task of implementing RFID systems. Some have already proven to themselves and the industry that the cost of these systems can be paltry compared to the returns yielded by management decisions enabled by such systems.

Moreover, odds are government and/or market mandates will force all producers in the RFID direction. So, the safe bet today is getting your arms wrapped around what the technology can and can't do.

Start At The Beginning

First of all, RFID is one form of individual animal ID. Other individual ID methods include everything from tattoos to traditional dangle tags and electronic identification (EID). The latter includes technologies such as retinal imaging and barcode scanning.

This article deals exclusively with RFID ear tags; RFID is also used in other cattle-based mediums such as ruminal boluses.

Second, RFID alone is neither a record keeping system, nor a business management tool. It's simply a mechanism for identifying cattle. When tied to a reader, RFID allows for quicker, more accurate collection of data. In this case, the data consists of at least a unique animal ID number, but may include other information such as weight and date if the system runs through a scale-head, or health treatment and GPS location if an electronic smart-syringe is also tied to the system.

“All RFID does is help you get on the highway more quickly,” says Dale Blasi, an animal science professor at Kansas State University (KSU) who has long been at the forefront of helping producers in his state understand and utilize new identification technologies. “It merely allows you to collect data faster and with more accuracy,” he adds.

For perspective, Blasi explains, “In other industries that utilize human data entry, a transposition error every 300 keystrokes is common. Besides the time involved, in manually collecting and inputting cattle data, there's a chance for human error, both in collecting the data chute-side, then again when transcribing that information to a permanent record.”

RFID systems and their components are fairly easy to understand.

There are four basic components:

  • the transponder (the tag), which is either a “donut” button or encompassed within a traditional dangle tag,

  • the reader (transceiver),

  • a data accumulator (the device where the information flows) and

  • the software, which transforms the data into useful and recognizable information.

In addition, international standards exist for the standardization of key components, namely the transponders and transceivers (see “Explaining ISO,” p. 16). The rub comes with the fact that these common standards allow for different protocols, and that the software driving the standards is proprietary. Consequently, mixing and matching different components from different systems by design or necessity is not always possible or easy.

A Game Of Inches

For instance, the electronic tags (transponders) themselves can comply with international standards but operate based on one of two protocols: half-duplex and full-duplex. Both are low frequency transponders. Both are passive in that they possess no power source of their own. Instead, they are charged by the signal emitted from the reader.

Half-duplex tags work something like the walkie-talkie you had as a kid: it's one-way communication, one at a time. The reader emits its signal, the half-duplex tag becomes charged, then it sends its signal — the information it contains — back to the reader.

Meanwhile, with the full-duplex protocol, communication is two-way and simultaneous. As soon as the full-duplex tag detects the signal from the reader, it begins sending information back to the reader.

Full-duplex proponents say these tags are read more quickly and there's more opportunity for them to be read because of the constant two-way signal. Conversely, half-duplex believers counter that their protocol succumbs less to environmental influences under certain conditions.

While readers that aren't ISO 11785-compliant may have problems reading both half-duplex and full-duplex tags, ISO 11785-approved readers should be capable of reading both transmission protocols. In fact, ISO compliance requires this.

However, Blasi believes the compromise solution takes some of the speed away from what could be had with full-duplex alone, and some of the range that could be had if the reader was geared solely to either protocol. Sounds like the result of a perfect committee meeting.

In either case, Blasi emphasizes, “RFID in the cattle business is a game of inches. To use it, you have to get up close and personal with the cattle.”

That's because, unlike the numbers on a dangle tag that can be seen across the pen or pasture, to read an RFID tag, the reader literally must be within a few inches of the tag. In fact, among the RFID tag manufacturers responding to the BEEF RFID Survey conducted by KSU (See “BEEF RFID Survey,” p. 10), the effective read range is approximately 2-12 in. Across those same respondents, the cost of a transponder, usually offered in conjunction with a visual dangle tag runs $2-4.50.

“Read range is a function of radio frequency, antenna areas and power consumption from the data carrier,” Blasi says. Besides the half-duplex, full-duplex protocol of the tag, the reader, its power and design can impact range.

As a rule of thumb, Blasi says battery-operated readers have less read-range than those powered by 110 volts. Incidentally, you can find readers that are tethered — physically hooked to the data accumulator — and those that are wireless.

Like transponders, there's an international standard for transceivers. However, the same rules and constraints described for tags apply here. Just because a reader complies with the standard doesn't mean it will work seamlessly with the tags and software provided by other companies. In the BEEF RFID Survey, handheld readers range from $150-1,700. Stationery readers in the survey are listed from $1,500-6,500.

Next, data accumulators can be any type of handheld, laptop or desktop computer. But, Blasi cautions folks to make sure the chosen device has the horsepower and minimum operating system specified by manufacturers for use with its readers and software. It's not surprising to find sweeping variation.

For one thing, installation alone runs from $0-1,500 in the BEEF RFID Survey. Some charge for customer support, some don't.

More important to users, though, each is different in terms of user friendliness, compatibility with off-the-shelf business software and the types of reports generated for users. While it's the end result of the RFID process, it should be among the first things considered by potential users, Blasi says.

Finally, just the fact that there are so many companies offering RFID components in the beef industry — 25 in the survey — can cause confusion. Never mind the fact that of these 25 companies, only one manufactures its own tags and its own readers, in addition to providing its own software and data storage and management service. All the rest offer potential clients some combination of these products and services.

Where To Begin

With that in mind, Blasi suggests, “Determine what you want an RFID system to accomplish for your operation. That will determine which components you need to be concerned with.”

Blasi says that if all you care about is having a tag in the calf's ear to comply with a market mandate or government regulation, then the only RFID component you need is the transponder (tag). But make sure all the components are ISO 11784 and ISO 11785 compliant.

Before purchasing any component or system, Blasi encourages producers to make sure they understand how well it works with components from other manufacturers. If you're considering a reader from company A, which also manufactures transponders, ask for a demonstration on how well it works with transponders from companies B, C and D, too.

Depending on how many cows, stockers, etc., you can dilute the hardware cost over, Blasi points out there's a growing cottage industry of third-party service providers who own the necessary hardware and software, then charge producers a fee to read their RFID tags and maintain their data. And, some vertically coordinated systems offer participants the added advantage of volume purchase of RFID components.

Most important, understand there is no foolproof RFID system. Where technology is concerned, failure occurs.

Markets In The Mix

Conventional wisdom is that livestock auction markets will become central to the theme when mandatory livestock identification (ID) hits the national stage. Some markets are already gearing up for that day — including one of the Heartland's largest stockyards.

The crew at Joplin Regional Stockyards (JRS), Carthage, MO, knows they'll be called on to routinely identify cattle as a service for livestock producers and marketers. In addition to being its own “premise,” JRS plans to facilitate premise establishment for a stream of consigners.

It's not something that begins with a flip of a switch though. JRS has been evolving into ID and livestock tracking technology.

JRS has, on a sporadic basis, already handled cattle wearing an assortment of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. And the stockyards presently uses a bar-coded panel tag to ID animals assigned to their commingled cattle sales (see sidebar below).

Marketing director Mark Harmon says that with a national ID system coming down the pike, the cowhands at JRS will have to pick up the pace though.

“Livestock auctions, as a place of first movement, are natural locations to provide this kind of service for customers,” says Harmon. “We'll have to see how this all shakes out, but we're looking at all our options.”

He envisions JRS crews tagging cattle according to customers' premise IDs and entering the data into computers that, he expects, could link with most of the major data management systems being used today for livestock. This, he says, will help smaller producers, in particular, save money and labor when it comes to tagging efforts.

“Given the nature of our setup, we can be pretty efficient at applying the tags and entering the necessary data,” he explains. “We can also buy the tags in bulk — literally by the thousands. Economy of scale should help us reduce costs.”

Eventually, tagging and tracking will become a normal service function for markets. It's a service that livestock auctions will have to provide to keep customers from seeking other marketing venues.

“A lot of producers don't have the desire or ability to deal with tagging and data entry on the farm,” adds Harmon. “It's a natural role for us to play.”

So, What's The Plan?

As it now stands, the plan at JRS is to have RFID tagging and scanning capabilities “coming in” and “going out” of the yards, according to Steve Owens. He and Jackie Moore are JRS co-owners.

Owens is wary that ID and tagging activities will interfere with the flow of cattle through the yards.

“We can't let it slow down the flow of cattle through these yards,” he says. “That's the last thing we want.”

He says “someone” has to decide on some standards so that all tagging systems “agree” with each other. Whatever comes down the line, he says it has to be a one-time, one-tag system that's as seamless as possible. The biggest threat to flow comes with missing tags and when tags are misread or incompatible with reading and scanning systems.

“No system will be perfect,” admits Owens. “But, it's got to be close to 100% or it'll create all kinds of problems for us.”

A History Of Innovation

Since September 2001, Joplin Regional Stockyards (JRS), Carthage, MO, has been conducting commingled cattle sales on a weekly basis. This process involves sorting cattle of multiple producers into larger lots based on weight, shape, color and sex.

JRS marketing director Mark Harmon says these larger uniform lots are attractive to more buyers. Thus, they bring a premium price compared to cattle sold in drafts of less than five head.

“Commingling also allows the smaller producers to sell at a premium at sale time,” Harmon says. The charge for commingling cattle is an additional $3.50/head.

In June 2002, JRS started broadcasting its Monday and Wednesday sales live over the Internet utilizing services provided by DVauction Inc. The broadcast is real time and allows registered buyers to bid and purchase cattle online. The service also allows sellers to view their cattle sale from home or work. Visit their Web site at www.joplinstockyards.com for more details.

JRS offers producers the opportunity to market their cattle in special sales when certain value-added practices have been utilized.

“These practices can include health programs, optional feeding programs, weaning and individual ID,” Harmon says. “Most of these programs require castration of bulls; heifers guaranteed open and dehorned. The industry desires these value-added cattle and will pay a premium.”

Radio Networking

When Dean and Karen Wang sold their calves this fall they had specific instructions written into the contract. The Baker, MT, ranchers wanted to be sure the buyer, an Iowa farmer-feeder, would leave the radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in the calves' ears and cooperate in returning performance data.

In fact, the calves will be followed all the way through slaughter — and the Wangs hope to capitalize on the information flow that began when they tagged the calves on the ranch.

Like a few dozen other Montana ranchers, the Wangs are using the services of the Montana Beef Network (MBN), a program designed to help the state's cattle producers receive added value for their calves. This will be Wang's sixth year in the program — plus two years in his own individual ID program.

A major MBN component involves identifying cattle that meet specific beef quality and consistency targets. The foundation of the network is data collection and information exchange based on the use of RFID tags.

Not A Perfect World

This is the fourth year the Wangs have specified they want data back on their calves as a condition of sale. They've included similar wording in direct sales to a large commercial feeder, while selling on the Internet and through an agreement with an order buyer.

Dean Wang admits that MBN's individual ID system hasn't worked perfectly, and he realizes “mistakes happen.” Yet, he's been able to get data back on his calves in all but two of the eight years he's kept close tabs on his calf crops.

“One year, someone at the feedlot decided to cut all the tags out of the calves' ears when they received them,” he says. He still got pen performance data back. But what he was really looking for — individual performance data — was a wash-out.

Still, Dean and Karen have stayed with the MBN.

“When we bought into this program we felt that if it was going to do us any good, we had to be consistent about getting performance data back year after year,” he says. “That's why we decided to write the contract the way we did this year. I thought I'd run into resistance, but the buyers were more than happy to work with us. They'll obviously benefit, too.”

The Wangs recently finished tagging all of their 700+ cows with RFID. Come next spring, his crew, led by Darin Buerkle, will tag each calf with an RFID tag at branding. That tag will correspond to the cow's eartag.

“We've gone through some ups and downs in getting information back from feeders and packers,” says Buerkle. “But, it looks like we're getting to the point where we have the kinks worked out of the system.”

Linking With BQA

Producers who become certified through the Montana Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program are eligible to become involved in the MBN Feeder Cattle Certification program.

Although not all producers who become BQA certified take this next step, it's an important component of the “systems approach” utilized by the MBN. So far this year, the MBN has about 16,000 head of cattle carrying RFID tags.

A set of specific records are entered into a database when animals are tagged with MBN tags, says Lisa Duffey of Bozeman, MT, the MBN project coordinator. She's also a graduate student in agricultural education at Montana State University-Bozeman (MSU).

These private records include detailed vaccination records and dates of weaning and shipping. Duffey's job is to follow the animals through the production chain, and enter and compile the data collected by feeders and packers.

“Prior to shipping, we need detailed feedlot contact information in order to track the animals through the remaining production segments,” says Duffey. “If we don't have the complete information we can't follow up on the animals.”

Big-Time Tagging Guys

Brian Rainey and Travis Standley, MSU graduate students in animal science, provide the main field labor force for MBN. In the past two years, they've tagged nearly 12,000 head of ranchers' calves with Allflex Electronic Identification Ultra Tags. They also supply scanned tags to producers in a do-it-yourself operation.

“If we can't get to a ranch because of our class commitments, we can scan the tags into the computer and send the producer a worksheet,” Standley says. “Then the producer can fill it out and send the form back to us after he works his calves. We'll record the data in the computer system for him.”

Rainey says the MBN advisory committee has recently hooked up with eMerge Interactive of Sebastian, FL, to crunch their data. eMerge's CattleLog individual animal data collection and reporting system is used for data analysis and information exchange.

“The compatibility among tags and scanning systems is critical to the success of any data tracking/management program,” says Rainey.

“The durability of the tags has improved a lot over the past year,” he adds. “I haven't had a mis-scan yet — and the retention rate is great. As long as the tags are put in correctly, we haven't seen them come out.”

Growing Pains Paying Off

The Montana Stockgrowers Association (MSGA) and MSU have collaborated on the MBN from its inception. The program is supported through a federal grant.

“Our members clearly endorse this kind of effort,” says MSGA president John Swanz, Judith Gap. “We've already seen benefits in terms of better markets from network cattle.”

In a 2000 survey, MSU economists estimated that MBN involvement added $1.56/cwt. to steer calf prices and $1.09/cwt. to heifer calves.

Swanz says all 12,500 Montana cattle producers, representing more than 3 million head of cattle, are eligible to participate in the program.

Wang says MBN is “a great system.” And for the cost of the RFID eartag — $2/head — it's a tremendous bargain, he adds.

“Now, rather than me making the calls to a feedlot or packing plant and requesting data,” he says. “I have the support and name recognition of the Montana Beef Network.”

Bigger Is Cheaper

Technologies like this always reward the best managers,” says Kevin Dhuyvetter, an agricultural economist with Kansas State University (KSU). “They continue to drive a wider gap between the top managers and the average ones.”

Dhuyvetter is referring to radio-frequency identification (RFID) and electronic data capture. And he's relating to the vexing challenge producers face justifying the cost of such a system within their operations.

On one hand, some early adopters have already proven to themselves and the industry that they can more than pay for the technology through the management decisions it enables them to make. Rather than manage groups of cattle on the average, these producers have found economic benefit in identifying and managing cattle as individuals.

Total Annual RFID System Cost, $/head (Examples)
Size of Herd, Number of Head
Description 62 125 187 250 625 937 1250
eID Transponder (tag)
Electronic tag $2.34 $2.34 $2.34 $2.34 $2.34 $2.34 $2.34
Tags for cows (one-time purchase) $0.56 $0.56 $0.56 $0.56 $0.56 $0.56 $0.56
Electronic reader
Wand/stick reader $2.48 $1.24 $0.83 $0.62 $0.25 $0.17 $0.12
Data accumulator
Laptop computer $1.99 $1.00 $0.66 $0.50 $0.20 $0.13 $0.10
Software/ web-based analysis and storage
Computer software $2.81 $1.40 $0.94 $0.70 $0.28 $0.19 $0.14
Internet access $2.00 $1.00 $0.67 $0.50 $0.20 $0.13 $0.10
Subscriptions/upgrade fees $4.16 $2.08 $1.39 $1.04 $0.42 $0.28 $0.21
Labor $8.32 $4.16 $2.77 $2.08 $0.83 $0.55 $0.42
Total annual cost for these examples $24.66 $13.78 $10.16 $8.34 $5.08 $4.35 $3.99

Currently, that seems especially true within vertically coordinated systems and in situations where producers own cattle through at least two production enterprises. Using RFID and electronic data capture makes it possible for them to gather data quickly and accurately enough to make individual management possible.

On the other hand, if desire or resources don't lend themselves to individual animal management, there is little or no economic incentive thus far for producers to invest in the technology that automates the front end of such management.

“For some producers, the most profitable thing they can do relative to RFID is the bare minimum,” says Dhuyvetter.

After all, while the cost is not necessarily prohibitive on a per-head basis, even at a buck a head, across enough numbers, it adds up to real money.

The Cost Of Doing RFID Business

As an example, Dhuyvetter and KSU colleague Dale Blasi developed a Web-based spreadsheet that can be used to calculate RFID costs (available free at www.beefstockerusa.org, a cooperative venture between KSU and BEEF magazine). The spreadsheet allows producers to input their own RFID costs or considerations to quickly determine an estimate of what an RFID system will cost annually on a per-head basis.

Dhuyvetter is quick to point out that the calculator traverses new ground. Thus, he says it's intended to offer users a general perspective, not a perfect decision-making tool. Incidentally, Dhuyvetter also developed a calculator for feedlots to estimate similar costs for their operations.

To demonstrate the calculator (see Tables), we'll use 250 cows as the base. Along with median costs for the RFID components that would allow tagging cows with a transponder, reading the numbers and transferring the information to a data accumulator (see “Mix and Match” p. 18), the calculator yields an annual cost of $8.34/head.

Obviously, the number of cattle levied against the cost of hardware drives the cost equation. Thus, sharing the hardware with other producers can lessen it dramatically. After hardware, though, labor is the most significant cost driver, at least until you're running through substantially more cows than 250.

“Labor is a cost that will vary tremendously between producers as some will have the ability to do things themselves and others will need to hire consultants to do everything for them,” explains Dhuyvetter. For that matter, he points out various systems and combinations of RFID components yield different levels of user friendliness, which also impacts labor cost.

On both hardware and labor costs, Dhuyvetter cautions producers to make sure they're counting costs against the correct enterprise. As an example, you can't accurately dilute the annual RFID cow cost by adding on the stocker calves you also apply the technology to; that's a different enterprise. And, as you increase the number of cows in our example, the total cost of labor goes up, although the unit cost decreases.

Consequently, unless use of the technology is mandated by the market or by government — via something like a national animal ID program, for instance — Dhuyvetter believes many producers may find it difficult to justify the cost of the technology unless they can exploit large scales of economy.

Even if mandates push producers in the direction of RFID, Dhuyvetter believes the current lack of economic incentive for employing the technology likely means most cow-calf producers with fewer than several hundred head will do what they must and no more. In the case of mandatory ID, as an example, many smaller producers may very well put an RFID tag in their cattle but stop there because they can't justify the expense of other RFID components.

“It will be extremely management-dependent,” emphasizes Dhuyvetter. That's unless the industry can demonstrate economic incentive beyond buyers requiring the technology as a condition of sale.

With all of this in mind, Dhuyvetter suggests that any producer contemplating an RFID system spend time to scale it against his or her individual needs. What components are required to achieve the purposes a producer plans to use RFID for? What is the minimum cost of putting together such a system? On a per-head basis, can you justify the cost?

“There is tremendous variability in the costs and capabilities of various RFID systems,” says Dhuyvetter. “Producers will be able to get as much or as little as they want. How much individual producers can benefit from an RFID system will depend on their unique situations.”

Keep in mind, utilizing an RFID system doesn't necessitate owning it from end to end. As alluded to earlier, Dhuyvetter says some companies offer reader and data management services to producers utilizing RFID tags.

Plus, Dhuyvetter explains, “Similar to other technologies, prices will likely come down rather rapidly as adoption increases. That doesn't necessarily mean that producers should wait because there will always be a better, cheaper version in the future. If you did that, you'd be waiting forever.”

Estimated Costs for an RFID System
Example is on 250 head at 8% interest RFID Components1
Initial cost, $2 Useful
life, yrs
value, $
Cost, $
Total Per Head Total Per Head
eID Transponder (tag)
Electronic tag --- $2.25 --- --- $585 100% $585 $2.34
--- --- ---
Tags for cows (one-time purchase) --- $2.25 5 0 $141 100% $141 $0.56
Electronic reader
Wand/stick reader $400 3 0 $155 100% $155 $0.62
Data accumulator
Laptop computer $800 3 200 $249 50% $124 $0.50
Software / web-based analysis and storage
Computer software $700 5 0 $175 100% $175 $0.70
Internet access $480 --- --- $499 25% $125 $0.50
Subscriptions/upgrade fees $250 --- --- $260 100% $260 $1.04
Labor $500 --- --- $520 100% $520 $2.08
--- ---
Total annual cost for this example $2,086 $8.34
1See the RFID components tab for a brief discussion of the different components of the RFID system.