In May, we passed our fourth “Full Validation” for the Canadian Quality Milk Program (CQM)/ proAction program). Seeing the process unfold, it is easy to understand the how and why of most regulations on the checklists. Thinking back, farmers with little interest in their animals’ well-being caused problems and the marketing boards wanted them to either clean up their acts and present a good image to the public or get out of the industry. Most did the latter as poorly-managed cattle do not produce enough milk to generate the income required to operate any dairy these days. Although the majority of those farmers are out of dairying now, the rest of us got dragged along into enforcement whether we deserve it or not.
The quality milk program is all about cow comfort, humane handling and care. One requirement that does not meet these standards, however, is the RFID tags mandated to be in every dairy calf’s ear shortly after birth. The tags don’t stay in and rip out, leaving gaping holes or ripping the length of the ear . . . with blood everywhere. Just ask any woman with pierced ears about snagging an earring with a hair brush — it is extremely painfully. Now think tearing through the skin.
For the past 35 years we have used various ways of marking cattle for identification in the ear. Having Jerseys, we used to tattoo them, a messy process for both tattoo-er and tattoo-ee. To read the stamping one had to catch the cow’s head and bend the ear, something the animals hated and became very skilled at avoiding. We had to constantly check the AI slips to ensure the letters/numbers were correct.
The Department of Animal Health metal tags were no better and if one misjudged the necessary growth room required when tagging calves, the metal tag would get caught while on pasture and rip out, taking a bloody chunk of ear. Those also required restraining the head and reading small numbers, causing subsequent errors.
Our preferred method of identification is white vinyl tags on the neck chains. In over 30 years we have never lost one. When born, the calves are temporarily ID’ed with purchased, pre-numbered tags until the paper work is done and white vinyl tags are etched with a rotary tool with the herd number on one side and the cow’s name on the other. In time, the etchings filled with dirt and become easy to read from a few feet away. No head restraint, plus a name, is easier to remember than a number. When the animal leaves the farm, the chain and white tag are removed and the RFID tags applied. If lost after the cows depart, that is someone else’s problem.
We always thought RFID tags ripping out, especially in calves, was because we keep thin-skinned Jerseys and other Jersey breeders we know have reported the same problem. However, farmers with other breeds have also recounted the same. It doesn’t seem to matter if cattle are pastured, penned or in freestall barns. The RFID tags rip out their ears just as frequently.
There is obviously a major problem with tag design that no one has cared to correct. We use insect repellent ear tags every year but rarely have one pull through an ear, never rip the length of the ear . . . but they are softer and bend if caught, allowing for release.
When we tagged nine calves with the RFID tags prior to our inspection in May, one tag was ripped out within two days, leaving a shredded ear. We were still waiting for the replacement tag the end of July. I guess the administrators are busy. Mid-June, another tag ripped out.
This is a major animal health and well-being issue that needs to be addressed immediately. We have no problem with the small round beef tags on our steers. They stay in. The problem is the big, stiff dairy tags. With animals pastured along a main road it is hard explaining to concerned people that the cow’s ear is shredded and bleeding due to government requirements. Plus, it is next to impossible to put a replacement tag in what is left of the ear.
We need other ID options and fast.
Angela Dorie is an agricultural writer and a Jersey farmer near Cornwall.