Cattle enter the digital age with mandatory identification tags

Geoffrey Downey

As accessories go, they aren’t much. They come in only a few simple shapes and in colours no one would call trendy. Each comes with a unique number, is worn on one ear, and only comes off after the carcass hits the slaughterhouse floor.

More functional than fashionable, the tags are part of the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency’s cattle ID program. Beginning July 1, producers must tag all cattle before they leave the herd of origin. The goal is to create an electronic registry in case of disease, protecting other animals and consumers.

Julie Stitt, CCIA’s general manager, says the identification system was designed to be as user-friendly as possible. The process begins with an authorized tag distributor (there are about 1,000 in Canada) ordering tags from an approved manufacturer. (Through trial testing, manufacturers must prove their tags meet the CCIA’s criteria for retention, readability and ability to withstand tampering.)

All tags have a half maple leaf with the letters CA, a visual nine-digit individual ID number, and either a barcode or electronic chip for scanning.

A cattle producer’s information is entered into the database at the point of sale.

Stitt says retailers have software which accesses and uploads the information to the registry. The database is maintained by QC Data.

While farmers have about a year to comply, July 1 is the official deadline. However, many farmers are already on board with the regulation.

Brett McConkey, in charge of business development at the Calgary-based company, says there are about 110,000 registered producers already. The CCIA is hosting about 30 GB of data, which is expected to grow by about 15 GB to 20 GB a year.

That number could grow significantly if the regulation is altered to note more than the herd of origin and where the animal was slaughtered.

“Right now we’re not tracking movement in between — there are still paper records for that. The system has the potential to track that, but it’s mandated at this point in time not to track that information,” says McConkey.

“The government doesn’t have access to the herd of origin information. It’s only if an approved CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) veterinarian says, ‘Yes, there is a disease on this animal. Give me the herd where this animal grew up.’ Only at that point are they allowed access to the system and only for that animal.”

A plummeting identification rate was part of the reason for the regulation. Stitt says in 1985 the identification rate was around 95 per cent, thanks to brucellosis and tuberculosis eradication programs. But once brucellosis (a disease that can cause a cow to abort her calf) threat was over the rate dropped to 10 per cent.

Another motivating factor is the recent outbreaks of mad cow and foot-and-mouth diseases. How effective the program is, however, remains to be seen.

“We really won’t know for sure until it’s been implemented,” says Dr. Jock Buchanan-Smith, a professor in the department of Animal and Poultry Science at the University of Guelph. “A lot depends on the retention of the tags in the ear. We’ll definitely lose tags on some animals, that’s pretty well guaranteed. It would allow us to learn a lot more than we can right now, where we don’t know beans about where these animals are coming from.”

While the technology isn’t infallible, he says the CCIA’s system should be sound provided no more than five per cent of the tags are lost.

Beyond the tangible benefit of public safety, Buchanan-Smith envisions an added bonus. Using the same process of finding a diseased animal, we could end up with a tastier product. “The information would allow us to find out what is causing some cattle to produce better beef than other cattle,” he says.

For more information on the cattle identification program, visit the CCIA’s Web site at

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