Dairy cattle and beef breeding stock will be required to have radio frequency ID tags, replacing the familiar orange metal ear tags, to move interstate starting in 2023.
USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced the change in April as a way to speed up the location of animals during disease outbreaks.
Sorting through paper records can take weeks or months, but electronic tags can cut that searching to a matter of hours, the agency said.
All dairy cattle will require RFID tags except for bulls born before March 11, 2013.
Beef cattle and bison will need tags if they are sexually intact and at least 18 months old, or used in rodeos or shows.
Feeder cattle and animals moving directly to slaughter won’t need RFID tags.
The enhanced ability to track animals could increase the appeal of U.S. beef exports, said Dan Kniffen, a Penn State animal science professor.
The electronic tags should also reduce the risk of misidentifying animals. Metal tags can break and become illegible when dirty, Kniffen said.
USDA will stop offering the free metal tags at the end of this year, but vendors will be able to sell metal tags through the end of 2020.
Cattle producers will have to pay for the RFID tags, but USDA and the states will subsidize the cost.
Electronic ear tags cost $1.50 to $2 apiece depending on the number purchased, according to Alicia Halbritter, a University of Florida Extension agent.
States will approve and offer the discounted tags, and veterinarians may continue to apply the tags.
USDA estimates that getting the new tags will cost cattle producers nationwide at least $11 million a year.
But that cost could be worth it to keep a lid on diseases like bovine tuberculosis, brucellosis and mad cow that could roil U.S. production and close foreign markets.
In lieu of RFID tags, cattle brands may still be accepted as official identification if the animal health authorities in both the shipping and receiving states approve.
Branding is most common in the West, but the Pennsylvania bull testing program and some local producers do use freeze branding, Kniffen said.