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Cattle with RFID tags can be recorded with a scanning wand like the one pictured in this photo. The information is verified by a third-party certified sale barn and uploaded into a computer system before the cattle are sold. (Journal photo by Lacey Newlin.)

Between the 2019 Holcomb, Kansas, processing plant fire and the COVID-19 supply challenges of 2020, can we come up with any other cattle market calamity that is even in the same category as far as financial loss and overall pandemonium? The bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, case that crashed cattle markets in 2003 is about the only beef industry disaster that remotely approaches the train wreck that has been 2020.

However, one thing is clear. The plant fire and COVID-19 pandemic effects could not have been prevented by the beef industry, but the cattle traceability options we have available currently could have determined the origins of the BSE-positive dairy cow almost instantaneously, counteracting news stories that would later be proven false, avoiding consumer panic, distrust and the negative impacts on the stock market.

Radio frequency identification tags, also referred to as electronic identification tags, are small button-sized ear tags with a unique 15-digit number printed on them. The number can be read or inputted by scanning the tag with a special reader. These tags are designed to last for the life of the animal. As opposed to the 2003 BSE-positive case, which took 13 days to trace back to Canada, the RFID tags can trace an animal’s location within hours, potentially isolating disease spread and heading off major cattle market catastrophes. The U.S. has had enough of those in the last year to last quite some time.

Apart from the tracing ability of the tags, they also allow producers to use them in a number of value-programs to receive premiums on their cattle. However, not all sale barns have invested in the equipment, proper facilities and become certified for third-party verification for the programs, which could short-change their customers and prevents them from capitalizing on the RFID value-added cattle premiums. IMI Global, a leader in third-party verification of value-added and certification programs for the livestock and crop industries only has 30 sale barns across the U.S. that have been approved for third-party verification, and only one of those is in Oklahoma.

Beaver County Stockyards, located in Beaver, Oklahoma, is co-owned by Jeff Slatten and Jerald Radcliff. The sale barn, which serves Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and Colorado, decided to add new pens for RFID-tagged cattle and purchase a tag reader so it could start accepting cattle in the RFID program this fall.

“No other barn in Oklahoma offers it and we wanted to do something different for our customers,” Slatten said. “In the spring, these cattle were picking up over $100 a head premium and sometimes up to $200.”

IMI Global verifies cattle for a number of programs, standards and claims including: age and source, tags and traceability, breed-verified, Non-Hormone Treated Cattle, Verified Natural Beef, Verified Grass-fed, CARE and WFCF. Because many of the programs employ strict rules against antibiotics or implants, Slatten said the special pens for these cattle were necessary to keep them completely separate from other cattle coming to the sale barn.

“We have to sell them either on our video sale or before the regular sale,” Slatten explained. “They come out of one pen and go back into the same pen, they cannot be mixed and they must be handled with care. We can’t have any antibiotics on the premises when we have them here and we abide by those rules.”

The tags are placed in the cattle when purchased and producers can add multiple programs to their cattle depending on the rules of each program. When the animals are ready to sell, they are brought to a sale barn that is third-party certified to scan the tags and upload the data to verify those animals are part of their program before they are offered up for auction and potentially draw a premium from buyers who desire their traits and documentation. When cattle are sold, they leave the sale barn with a tag manifest and information on where they were shipped from before the sale and after they are sold.

“Animal ID is easy and there’s nothing to it if you take good care of your cattle and keep good records,” Slatten explained. “If you do that you can pick up $100 a head, but you’ve got to wean them and do just a little bit of extra work to get the money.”

Although many, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, expect RFID tags to become common practice as a means of tracking animals in the future, Slatten said he does not believe it will ever be mandatory.

“They won’t ever be able to get all the ranchers on the same page,” he said.

So far, Slatten said Beaver County Stockyards has sold more than 1,000 RFID-tagged cattle in the country since they started accepting cattle in the last couple months, but he expects more cattlemen to start using these programs in the future.

“It’s a real pain in the rear for us, but no one else offers it and we want to do it for our customers to try to keep them in business and we’ve all got to do everything we can to make money right now,” Slatten said.

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 620-227-1871 or lnewlin@hpj.com.

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