Animal identification is the hot-button issue in the industry right now, but animal ID is nothing new. A form of the national ID system has been in existence for close to 70 years and managed basically as a regulatory program that provided testing and vaccination tags for the brucellosis and tuberculosis control efforts.

Over the past 20 years, the success of these programs has actually created a decline in the use and application of regulatory and vaccination tags. Now, with the increased movement of cattle, concerns about the introduction of FADs or bioterrorism, and increased concentration in feedlots and dairy operations, the industry needs a means to rapidly trace back cattle through their movements to their farm of origin.

This has driven the need for an advanced nationwide system. Organizations involved in proposing and organizing ID efforts have been USDA, the cattle industry, the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA), the Holstein Association and the National Farm Animal Identification & Records (FAIR) program.


A lot of issues and concerns surround voluntary and mandatory identification programs of cattle, but opportunities for your clients are also emerging.

“A few years ago, NIAA began to refine what the industries wanted in an ID system across all species,” says Mark Spire, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT, Food Animal Health & Management Center, Kansas State University. This initiative evolved into the United States Animal Identification Plan (USAIP). Various task groups worked on governance, transition, communication and standards, and species working groups addressed issues specific to those industries. When the plan became more formalized, it was brought forward to the U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA) and state veterinarians for review and comment. With minor modifications, the USAIP has become the USDA National Animal Identification System (NAIS).

“The species working groups were to develop practical species systems,” explains Spire, who was a member of the cattle working group. “The objective was to develop a system that could work at the speed of commerce while allowing information to move within the system to provide a trace back for diseases within 48 hours of discovery. Based on this need, this group chose to use electronic identification as the principal means of cattle identification. We saw the main bottle neck asthe packing plant where a high number of tags would need to be read in a relatively short period of time and where tags would be terminated from the program.”

Within the cattle working group, a standards subcommittee was established to review international programs and industry standards and develop guidelines for tag specifications, quality-assurance issues, tag numbering and other issues. The group set guidelines for read rates, read distance and reliability of radio-frequency identification (RFID) readers that are ISO compliant.

The program today
Today, USDA is developing uniform methods and rules that will be used to govern the entire ID system. “There is legislation pending before Congress to address the major issue of confidenti-ality of producer information entering the NAIS,” says Spire. “Pilot projects have been initiated in 30-plus states that have provided funding for establishing a premises-identification numbering system and to address key issues such as compatibility with brand laws, tag distribution and data recording and reporting.”

The intent of the original plan was to trace back current regulatory diseases and Class A diseases listed as foreign animal diseases (FADs), or in the event of a declared emergency. Animal age and sex came in initially for matching cattle with lost tags. “As we move toward source verification, particularly on the age issue, export markets may require age specification of less than 20 months or an A40 number that is between 12 and 17 months of age,” explains Spire. Having that information on an animal is another way to be able to verify cattle background for potential export. “We are seeing a movement in the beef industry for process verification, and part of process verification will involve identification at the individual-animal level.”


Calvin Booker, DVM, MVetSc

Producer issues
Producers cite cost as a concern with individual-animal ID. But, as Spire notes, in the grand scheme of an animal’s life, the tag itself doesn’t cost that much. “In the beef business where we put tags in cows, if it is a $2.25 tag and that cow is around for six years in the herd, that’s only 40 cents per year. That’s pretty cheap to be a player, and I don’t think it’s a major issue in most operations. If $2.25 per animal is a producer’s operating margin, then he/she has some issues a lot deeper than the price of the tag.”

In the USAIP, a major recurring cost will be tagging those cattle moving into commerce because they are going to have to be tagged as they leave the farm of origin. “It is the responsibility within the plan for the initial owner of the animal to get the tags in,” says Spire. “After that, all other owners of the cattle have the responsibility of reporting movements of those cattle after they are received onto their premises.”


David Cupps, DVM

David Cupps, DVM, Barry County Veterinary Service, Cassville, Mo., agrees that though clients initially worry about the cost of tags, it’s not a major issue. What they are concerned about is how much trouble it will be to get the tagging done and what information about their operation will be available from the tag.

“We try to address those issues with the clients,” says Cupps. “I believe the cow-calf producer will have the easiest job of anybody in the ID system because all he is going to have to do is put a tag in a calf’s ear. The bigger job will be the distribution of tags by whoever sells them. That person will have to do the uploading of information to the central database, and all that the cow-calf producer will have to do is install the tags and have a premises ID to associate with them. After I explain it to most of my clients, most of them say it’s not that big a deal. But I think there are some confidentiality issues that they are concerned about.”


David Thain, DVM

Cupps also faces client herd sizes ranging from 10 to 500 cows. “Probably 40 percent of the calves produced in the United States come out of herds of less than 100 head. People with 100 head of cows are not making a living off that. Animal ID will become a convenience issue for them. If I have to come out and install the tags or record the data on age and sex, the hassle factor is getting big.”

Nevada State Veterinarian David Thain, DVM, adds that cattle producers have a lot of concerns about when they’re going to have to ID. “Are they going to have to be done at birth and what are the retention issues? How well will the tags stay in place? Most of our producers here in Nevada are range operations. And how often will they have to record them? Are they going to have to record them when they are moved across the street, or at a sale, or in interstate commerce? These are the questions they have, in addition to the cost and who will capture the data.”

Thain states that in Nevada, most of the producers sell in load lots out in the field; cattle are loaded in the truck and shipped out. “How are these tags going to be read to effectively capture the numbers?” he asks.


Karen Jordan, DV

This, says Spire, becomes a big issue. “For the cow-calf producer, if in the final version of the NAIS plan, tag placement is all they need with no other information moving upstream, the responsibility to report movement information and identification numbers falls upon the operation receiving the cattle,” he explains. “If they receive an animal that doesn’t have a tag, then they are to use their own premises tag and report the missing tag as an event. This places the burden of upstream reporting directly on the stocker and feedlot operators. At slaughter, there is no provision for them to reapply a tag, but they will have to document the receipt of all cattle and retire EID devices.”

Getting those first few clients to take the plunge and embrace an ID system is also a challenge. “There will be small groups of people who are the early innovators,” says Cupps. “I work for a lot of different cow-calf producers, but right now I’d be surprised if I had more than 10 who would be interested in doing an age- and source-verification program outside of what’s already available through their market.”


Mark Spire, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT

Producer benefits
Animal ID has a greater purpose than just being nosy about producers’ business. Its purpose is the safety and protection of the national herd.

Karen Jordan, DVM, of Karen Jordan, DVM, Large Animal Veterinary Services, Siler City, N.C., says, “During the BSE issue, all of those calves were slaughtered, which did protect consumer confidence, but if an ID system had been in place, they would have found the individual and that would have been the end of the search. The role of animal ID is to get to the right animal quickly and to prevent unnecessary losses.”

Jordan notes the ramifications also to the consumers and taxpayers. “If ID was in place, the taxpayers would not have had to pay that huge indemnity bill on those 400 slaughtered calves. So, we’ve got a lot of protection that we can get across to our producers right now, even with our archaic type of ID; but at least it is an ID system and we could trace back when needed.”

Beyond the basic information that will be required on the tags to facilitate situations like foreign animal disease, what a producer gets from having cattle identified with RFID tags is only limited by their imagination.

“What can they do with that number?” poses Spire. “That becomes the value-added part. A producer may not realize all of the opportunities or how they can start putting a value to it. This is where astute veterinarians can become a critical part of this information-management age, by showing producers opportunities and where they can start getting value out of the dollars they spend on identifying cattle.”

Calvin Booker, DVM, MVetSc, Feedlot Health Management Services, Okotoks, Alberta, agrees and says even without FAD concerns or the age mandates some countries are requiring for export, you can justify to your producers the cost of ID based on production-management benefits. “Especially when we’re talking $2 to $3 at the maximum, and it will only get cheaper than that as tags go into mass production.”

Booker says that in the early 1980s, the Canadian feedlot industry struggled with not having all animals individually identified when they came to the feedlot. “It wasn’t until we started identifying all animals in 1983-84 and put individual IDs in everything that we could start to improve the production system,” he says. “Even though the animals received at feedlots were essentially in the ‘witness protection program’ at feedlot arrival, by individually tagging each animal at arrival and following the data from that point forward, we were able to make great improvements to the production system.”

In the U.S., however, there is still a large population of cattle that are not individually identified. “Within the feedlot sector alone, getting producers to individually identify animals allows you to improve the productivity within the feedlot,” says Booker. “Cow-calf producers often re-use the same tag. So, building any kind of data collection system to monitor production within the cow-calf sector has been difficult, except with progressive producers who wanted to take data and analyze it at that level. That’s where the big opportunity lies.”

You can make some production decisions at the group level, says Booker, “but if we look at the next opportunities that are available in increasing efficiency and production, it’s managing individuals within a group. We don’t have the luxury of the swine or poultry industry where genetics and the environment have been taken out as variables. Even a highly-related group of animals has tremendous variation. If we are going to optimize production to some target specification, we need individual-animal-level data.”

Jordan says it’s the same in the dairy industry. “We’re losing a lot of genetic information on the young sires that we try to prove out because those young sires are just being used and their daughters aren’t being ID’d. We incur losses every day without identifying these animals.”

Identification and additional information added onto tags may also affect premiums and discounts in the future. “Right now for source-verified cattle in the United States, we’re seeing premiums paid, but in the not-too-distant future that will become the baseline,” says Spire. “We’re going to see animals that don’t carry the information get sorely discounted, and then it becomes tougher to keep the status quo of not tagging or not providing additional information for operators up the supply chain.”

Cupps has found another motivational tool – old-fashioned pride. “My producers are proud to own cattle,” he says. “It’s a lifestyle and ‘glamorous’ to own cattle. If you can convince them to do a better job for the food chain of North America, what they do is important, and they should be proud of the calves they take to town, you have a good motivator for small herds. Pride of ownership is still very important to the small producer.”

Producer information risk
Risk and reward are issues the veterinarian needs to explain to clients who want to add additional information onto a tag. “If you’re going to explain the potential reward side to your client, you need to also explain what the downsides could be if there are any,” says Booker. “A producer may want to share the upside reward in his calves, but that also means he’s going to share the downside risk.”

Booker gives the example of a producer who wants to participate in a marketing program where he will get reimbursed when his calves do well on feedlot performance and grading, but then they don’t. “That’s the reality of what could occur because the producer has never had access to the information before to know what to expect,” Booker explains. “I would say the producer benefits from this type of experience in the long term because he can use the information to improve his calves, but in the short term, he doesn’t see the benefit because an anticipated $20-per-animal premium turns out to be a $40-per-animal loss.”

Risk and reward go together, sums Booker. “If you want to share the upside of selling your product, I think you also have to share the downside.”

Next issue: Tagging issues, liability of information and how branding fits in.

This information is from a Bovine Veterinarian Animal Identification Roundtable sponsored by Farnam, Global Animal Management and Schering-Plough Animal Health and moderated by Brad White, DVM, Mississippi State University.

Dairy ID issues


Adult dairy animals and more and more heifers are being ID’d, but getting bull calves ID’d at birth may pose a problem by adding another task for dairy producers.

Cattle ID issues often get discussed in a beef context, but it impacts all dairy animals, as well. The dairy industry, in fact, may be ahead of the beef industry in many ID regards. “We still have mature cows out there that have absolutely no ID whatsoever, but as a whole, the industry is moving,” says Karen Jordan, DVM. “Dairy producers have animal ID in some form already for performance data.They don’t have a problem with the concept of ID, but everybody is concerned about another expense and even more so about another job to do. If the extra job of tagging doesn’t glean some other information that could benefit them in their daily chores, that’s where they start questioning. In general, I think the dairy industry is pretty accepting of another ID system.”

Jordan knows of what she speaks. Aside from her 90 percent dairy practice, she and her husband also own a dairy farm and she’s a producer-member of the Dairy Farmers of America. “Nationally, what the dairy industry is pushing for is to try to have ID on bulls and heifers as they’re leaving the farm, just to get it back to farm premises of origin. They are trying to ID back to premises of origin because of the concerns over tuberculosis (TB) making a comeback in the dairy herds.”

Jordan notes that one problem on some large calf ranches is getting calves ID’d. Where there’s a lot of commingling on big heifer ranches, there’s a huge potential for spread of disease, including zoonotic diseases. “Currently, we depend heavily on DHIA and the Holstein Association, so the actual event of tagging has not been an issue. With DHIA, the emphasis is on mature animal ID and hopefully heifer calf ID, but for the industry as a whole, we’re pushing more to get these animals tagged at birth.”

Jordan says it’s feasible to get newborns tagged, especially with the TB issue. “We can’t allow TB to continue to spread,” she says. “People will complain about having to put a tag in a newborn bull calf’s ear when it is going to their neighbor down the road to be backyard beef, but it’s becoming such a big issue we can’t stand by and let it go on without any ID in our youngstock.”

Jordan notes that similar to DHIA systems, there will probably be animal-ID providers. “The dairy industry is comfortable with the DHIA system. The challenge will be getting individual ID to the young calf. Right now, we’re comfortable with the mature animal as she enters the production chain and she has ID from DHIA in some fashion.”

Dairy producers have also found other ID systems. “We have a lot of purebred herds in North Carolina, and some of them are using the Holstein FAIR system,” Jordan adds. “The colored breeds have their tattoos that match the registration number with their breed association. So, currently the dairy industry has several forms of ID, but, except for FAIR, nothing that is electronically quickly traceable. It’s all dealing with some kind of paper trail.”

Another issue with dairy cattle is placement of tags because the head of the dairy animal isn’t always readily available, and therefore reading eartags may prove difficult. “There is some concern because some of the parlor setups – the nice, new, modern parlors that are capturing data three or four times a day on these cows – they need something that is just like a stockyard situation: quickly and easily readable. Some large-herd consultants say, ‘The only way the ID system will work is if it’s in the left hind leg.’  I’ve heard other people say, ‘No, it will work in the ear.’ So, we need to find the best way to identify our dairy cattle.”

Feedlot ID issues

Feedlots most likely are not going to tag animals, other than the odd replacement tag that gets issued as part of the ID program. “Feedlots have questions about ‘What is my obligation? What am I going to have to do in terms of recording this information? How am I going to record the information, what is it going to cost, and is there a confidentiality issue?’” says Calvin Booker, DVM, a feedlot veterinarian in Canada.

The other question feedlots have regarding potential benefits is, “Can we use this ID system to facilitate something else?,” whether that’s trace forward or trace backward in the production system. “Feedlots want to know how the U.S. ID program fits with their business model and how it comes together, because trace backward and trace forward have been major missing links within the feedlot system. The U.S. ID program may facilitate these activities,” Booker explains.

Booker has been working with U.S. feedlot producers for three years on setting up systems to record national ID tags, because U.S. producers were recording national ID tags on Canadian cattle that were going into their systems before the border closure. “Those systems are similar enough that you can set up the same system to record the U.S. ID,” says Booker. “If our U.S. producers are set up to deal with it in their databases already, our recommendation is to record it. Will it have any value over and above complying with whatever the regulations are? Tangible value propositions have not been defined at this point, but the incremental cost of recording individual-animal ID is very small. So for that small investment, feedlots can record that information, and it may turn into something more valuable down the road.”

ID Roundtable Series

  • Part 1: Client issues and benefits
  • Part 2: Tag issues, liability and branding
  • Part 3: Veterinary and producer education; cost
  • Part 4: Veterinary opportunities and consumer issues