On December 23rd, 2003, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) made a diagnosis of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease, after testing the brain of a dairy cow that had slumped on to the slaughterhouse floor in Washington state. It was 13 days until the cow was traced back to the farm where it was born — in Alberta, Canada.

The government jumped to contain the disease, but the lack of information was limiting. Even today, just 37 percent of the estimated 1.4 million livestock farms in the US are registered with the federal government. Information on individual animals is even scarcer. Inspectors were able to trace one of the mad cow’s calves back to a feeding operation, for example, but couldn’t identify it in the herd. As a result, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service killed all the calves on site.

If more ranchers adopted the electronic tracking technology that has been around for years, tracing disease would be faster and more precise. Short-range radio frequency identification (RFID) is used by a minority of US farms but is increasingly common in parts of Europe, Latin America, and across Australia. Canada has had a mandatory electronic ID rule since 2011.

Cattle can be tracked as easily as jeans in a Walmart

RFID microchips can be implanted into animals, or swallowed and lodged in the rumen part of the stomach. Most commonly, it’s in a disc slightly thicker than a quarter which is attached to the animal’s ear. With RFID, cattle can be tracked as easily as jeans in a Walmart.

Besides assisting with disease traceability, RFID tags allow ranchers to instantly pull up information on an animal's lineage, weight, health records, and production history. Ranchers can also see tidbits of data such as when the cow is at the feeding trough, a metric for health. Weighing cows takes a few hours instead of a few days, using a scale affixed with an RFID reader. The tags even sync with existing cattle management software such as Herd-Pro or CattleMax.

Electronic tracking has a ton of potential, which is why the industry leader Allflex was bought for $1.3 billion after a fierce bidding war last week. Allflex first introduced electronic tags in 1993, and the business has been growing ever since. Electronic tracking make ranchers’ lives easier — see CattleMax’s article, "Four Benefits of Cattle Management in the Cloud" — and it also creates opportunities for crunching the aggregate data. One company, called Vital Herd, believes it can save four million cattle a year by intensely monitoring for signs of illness.


Cow being scanned by RFID reader.

Some researchers are using pedometers to track cattle movements, while others are using GPS. USDA researcher Dean M. Anderson developed a GPS-enabled collar that shocks cows when they wander out of range, eliminating the need for a fence.

Adoption of electronic tagging is still very low in the US, however. After the mad cow disease scare, only about 10 percent of American cattle had electronic IDs. In fact, many ranchers don’t individually identify cattle at all, even manually. They’re not required to do so.

The USDA proposed requiring electronic tags for all cattle by 2006, but ranchers resisted. Instead, the USDA started phasing in a voluntary National Animal Identification System, which allowed for tattoos, plastic tags, and metal tags, as well as electronic IDs. The agency phased the program out in 2009 "due to the level of opposition in the countryside," a USDA spokesman said in an email.

Many ranchers don’t individually identify cattle at all

"Small ranchers say it’s too expensive. Then there are some concerns over privacy, and typical resistance to the government," said Terrell Miller, cofounder of Cattlesoft, which makes CattleMax.

The electronic tag costs twice as much as a plastic one. The electronic tags can’t be seen from far away, so ranchers usually end up buying both. The system also requires software, a computer, and RFID readers. Most ranches in the US have 100 cows or fewer, meaning they don’t have much margin to adopt new technology. (Amish farmers also objected since they avoid all technology on moral grounds.)

A sophisticated, federal system for tagging livestock may be more of a benefit to ranchers than an issue of public safety, considering the rareness of mad cow and other diseases. RFID also does not help or prevent contamination that happens after slaughter, as in the horse meat scandal that swept Europe two months ago.

The business community certainly thinks electronic livestock tracking is about to get big, but there was similar hype back in 2004. RFID is being applied sporadically across the US, including one dairy farm where cows were tweeting about how much milk they produced. Retailers say sales of electronic tags are strong, but not spiking. But without a national law or some serious subsidies, widespread adoption seems unlikely in the near future.