Traceability in the beef industry is essential for rapid response to disease outbreaks. The United States does not yet have a nationwide traceability program and it could be detrimental to the industry in the case of an outbreak. New technologies like HerdWhistle are using RFID to help bring superior traceability to feedlots.
A lack of formal traceability severely slows the response to infectious diseases. For example, An outbreak of tuberculosis in South Dakota spread across 12 states and took 10 months for government officials to trace back to its source and get a handle on the spread. Luckily, tuberculosis is a slow moving disease. A faster moving infection could have been disastrous to the whole industry.
Recent years have seen a push for greater traceability in the sector but it has been met with some skepticism from beef producers. In 2019, the country came close to a traceability system that would make RFID ear tags the official form of cattle identification. The movement was ultimately pushed back.
According to a study by NAHMS in 2011, only about 2.9% of cow-calf operations were using RFID tags to monitor and record livestock information. RFID aside, only about 45% of feedlots were even managing cattle with an individual animal identification record. Over 85.5% were opting for group identification instead. Individual animal identification is what allows feedlot operators to record and keep track of individual animal health information.
Most feedlot operations use standard plastic or metal tags. Steers receive the tag once they arrive at the feedlot and are processed through the squeeze. These tags have a visual group or individual ID for easy identification of each animal. These tags allow for some traceability, but rely on manual record keeping in order to keep track of each animal or grouping of animals. Lack of compliance, record keeping errors, and slow traceability response have proven these are not an effective method.
Low frequency RFID tags are becoming more common. These are typically assigned to a steer a few days after birth and give the animal its own unique identification number that can be stored digitally. The tags can be scanned with an RFID antenna for a more automated method of record keeping. Low frequency RFID tags are often small, button-like, ear tags with no room for a visual ID to be printed. They are also very slow to read and have a very short read range, making it not an ideal choice for large feedlots processing thousands of animals.
UHF RFID tags are the future of feedlot traceability. Very few feedlots have adopted them so far, but the big push in the United States is towards this technology. UHF tags look just like a standard plastic ear tag with a visual ID printed on the outside. The only difference is an RFID chip inside the tag. UHF RFID systems have an extended read range and can read hundreds of different tags all at once, making it an ideal choice for monitoring a feedlot pen.
HerdWhistle uses UHF RFID technology. The ear tags look just like a typical plastic cattle ear tag with a printed ID number on the front. The only difference is an RFID chip inside. It is a passive tag that requires no power to operate. With RFID antennas installed in every feed bunk and water trough, the system provides 24/7 traceability of the cattle in their pens. It stores all information in a software for quick access when it is needed.
RFID ear tags are the most practical method for traceability in the beef industry. Systems like HerdWhistle aim to improve traceability and rapid responses to disease outbreaks.