By Connor Lynch
BRUCE COUNTY — Plastic radio frequency identification (RFID) tags are required by law but because so many of them fall off, frustrated beef farmers are sticking to steel tags. But that comes with a different problem, says a farmer: Steel tags can cause infection.
On Jan. 13, Bruce County beef producer and cattle buyer Ken Schaus tweeted a photo of a cow with a steel tag and exposed flesh on its ear as it entered his feedlot and sale barn. He said more than half of the 43 head that came in had a similar issue.
He takes the steel tags out when the cattle arrive, he said. “They don’t serve any purpose whatsoever.” He acknowledged that producers, especially cow-calf producers, still use them because they complain that the RFID tags fall off. But if they go in too tightly, the steel tags can cause an infection.
Plenty of producers responded to the tweet with complaints about the retention of RFID tags, saying they’ve had few or no problems with their steel tags. But Schaus said that by the time the animals arrive at his site, as many as five per cent have some level of infection that wasn’t obvious until the tag came out.
In other cases, the ears are infected enough to be hot to the touch, and sometimes he can even smell the infection. Generally the animals have recovered within days of the tags coming out, he said.
RFID tags became mandatory for the beef industry nationwide in 2010, as part of the industry’s response to the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease) crisis in the early 2000s. The outbreak of the disease closed off many export markets that Canada is still in the process of recovering.
There was already a traceability program, based on bar-coded tags, operating in the beef sector before BSE hit. The Canadian Cattle Identification Program recommended a switch to RFID tags in 2006. While it’d be nice if the ear tags could work as a national traceability program, that’s been a “slow, cumbersome process,” he said. In a statement sent to Farmers Forum last month, the Canadian Cattle Identification Program said there were many reasons for the switch to RFID tags, including “the ability of the technology to be read without requiring line-of-sight.” As for retention, the statement noted that: “While retention may be perceived as higher for metal tags, currently there is no RFID metal-tag option approved for Canada.” Any producers still using steel tags are using them alongside RFID tags to identify their animals at a glance.
Eastern Ontario beef farmer Eleanor Renaud said she still uses steel tags for her cattle and hasn’t had any real issues with infection. “We’ve used those field tags for 30 years, the whole time I was growing up. It was very, very rare that you would ever have an infection in those ears.”
She asked her vet about it, who told her that different types of tags shouldn’t be more prone to infection than others. The most important thing is the cleanliness of the tags, and animals’ ears, the vet said.
Former Beef Farmers of Ontario and Canadian Cattlemen’s Association president Dan Darling said he’s certainly heard of retention issues with the RFID tags over the years. The switch came partly from meat packers pushing it: Steel tags left in a cattle carcass can be a serious hazard to a running band saw.
He added that despite retention issues with the RFID tags, there’s very little leniency from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency around untagged cattle. Sometimes an animal arriving at an abattoir will get a bit of a break if there’s a hole in the ear and the rest of the load is tagged, but producers can’t count on that, and if it happened again, they’d likely get fined. With Canada’s BSE risk still ranked higher than negligible, traceability in the system can’t be risked, Darling said. Fines for moving cattle without ear tags will typically range from $500 to $1,300.
Unfortunately, producers frustrated by RFID tags falling out just have to wait and do their best to keep their animals tagged. Darling said there’s a company working on a hybrid tag, made of steel but coated in plastic, with the RFID chip inside. “Our main goal is to get a tag developed that stays in as well as those steel tags, and they really stayed in really well.” But there’s no telling when that might be available.
What’s a farmer to do? Steel tags tear flesh but plastic tags fall out
By Connor Lynch