Table of Contents
Regulated National ID
Within-Herd Methods for ID
Using RFID with in the Herd
This Factsheet describes two types of identification (ID) methods
for cattle - regulated national ID and within-herd methods for ID
- and is applicable to all types of cattle in Ontario - beef, dairy
Cattle identification, such as hot branding, has been used extensively
in North America to show ownership of cattle. The purebred industry
has used tattoos to establish unique animal identification. Other
types of ID have been adopted for successful herd management for
production, health and breeding decisions.
With the support of the Canadian cattle industry, regulation was
enacted on January 1, 2001, requiring all cattle leaving the farm
of origin to be identified with a tag bearing a unique identification
Regulated National ID
History and Purpose
To maintain beef export markets, the Canadian cattle industry
proposed and received regulated approval to establish the Canadian
Cattle Identification Program, run under the authority of the Canadian
Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA). The purpose of the program
is to contain and/or eradicate 16 reportable diseases through identification
and trace-back of infected animals. The program has been put to
the test many times with identified cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy
(BSE). Initially, Canadian export markets closed after the first
case of BSE, but some markets reopened soon after, partially due
to the trace-back system that was in place.
The program also integrates age verification with national ID.
Age verification is a requirement for some export markets and is
important, domestically, for determining when it is necessary to
remove specified risk materials (SRMs) at slaughter. SRMs are tissues
in a cattle carcass where BSE concentrates. By regulation, SRMs
are removed from the carcasses of animals older than 30 months of
age and disposed of separately. Some export countries have age limitations
for Canadian cattle.
How Does It Work?
Since September 1, 2006, all cattle leaving their herd
of origin must be tagged with a CCIA-approved RFID (radio frequency
identification) tag (Figure 1). Tags are distributed through authorized
dealers only and registered to the producer. Tags can be placed
in either ear of the animal, except in Quebec where all cattle must
be tagged in the animal's right ear.
Each RFID tag has a visual and electronically embedded 15-digit
number (Figure 2). The first three numbers (124) indicate the code
for Canada, and the remaining 12 digits are unique to each tag.
This number forms the unique animal ID in a national database maintained
by the CCIA. The RFID number is retired from the database once the
animal is disposed of through slaughter, death or export. The Canadian
Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) enforces the program by monitoring
cattle for appropriate tags at public auction barns and slaughter
Figure 1: RFID tags and tag applicator.
Figure 2: RFID tag.
Approvals of tags and tag readers by the CCIA are on-going, and
rules for the regulatory process may change. For up-to-date information,
consult the CCIA website or contact their office:
Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA)
#300, 5735 - 7th St. N.E.
Calgary, Alberta T2E 8V3
Toll-Free: 1-877-909-2333 (BEEF)
National Livestock Identification for Dairy (NLID)
The dairy industry in Canada has developed the National Livestock
Identification for Dairy (NLID), which meets the requirements of
national ID with additional rules to better suit their industry.
The NLID uses a two-tag system that allows each animal's unique
ID to be read visually and by an RFID reader. The tag set comes
in four parts, along with matching labels for recording. The RFID
tag consists of a microchip button and a small visual tag-back panel
(Figure 3). The security tag has pre-printed front and back panels
with matching number. It is recommended that the RFID button go
in the animal's right ear to help avoid missing tags when using
Figure 3: Tags used for the NLID system.
The NLID system is recognized in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico and
meets the standards of the Dairy Farmers of Canada's Canadian Quality
Milk program, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the CCIA and
Canadian dairy breed registry herd books.
Registered and unregistered animals are tagged shortly after birth
and a unique national identification number is assigned to each
animal and recorded. Lost or broken tags must be replaced by a tag
of the identical ID number. An NLID replacement tag will be reissued
with the same original number and, if lost through normal wear and
tear, be replaced free of charge.
Tags may be ordered directly from:
P.O. Box 2065
Brantford, ON N3T 5W5
Toll Free: 1-877-771-6543 (NLID)
Within-Herd Methods for ID
Ear tags are most commonly used for within-herd animal identification.
Tags can be metal or plastic.
Metal tags are self-piercing aluminum or steel ear tags that are
inexpensive and easy to apply. Tags come in various colours and
have a high retention rate. However, the numbers on the tags are
small; animals must be restrained for the tag to be read, so metal
tags are mainly used as back-up for lost plastic tags.
Figure 4: Neck tag with hanging transponder.
The biggest advantage of the plastic tags is that they
are readable from a distance. There are numerous kinds of plastic/rubber
tags on the market. They can be purchased in several different
colours, with preprinted numbers or blank, allowing producers
to mark them with their numbering system, the animal's breed,
sire and dam, etc. Tags also vary in size and shape and are available
as dual front-back tags. Buttons securing the tags can also be
ordered with numbers.
Sellers of tags have applicators specifically designed for applying
their tags. Proper ear location for applying tags is important
for tag retention. Tag manufacturers provide directions for tagging
and ideal tag placement in the ear for their tags.
Neck tags and transponders are attached to a chain or strap around
the neck of animals. They are commonly used in dairy cow management
to provide electronic and visual identification within herd for
management purposes. One of the early uses of RFID technology
was to measure feed intake in beef cattle using transponders secured
to chains around an animal's neck, however, today, few beef cattle
producers use neck tags for within-herd management.
Figure 5: Example tattoo and ideal location on
Neck-mounted transponders are commonly used for automated ID
in milking parlours and robotic milking systems, as well as automated
sort gates and feeders (Figure 4). They may also be combined with
other features such as activity monitors for lameness or heat
detection. There are some disadvantages to neck tags/transponders
in that they can be proprietary and specific to a system, making
them much more expensive to purchase and replace than RFID ear
This type of tag is secured to the animal by piercing through
the skin in the brisket area, allowing the tag portion to hang
freely for easy reading. While brisket tags are less likely than
dangle ear tags to rip out because the hide in the brisket area
is tougher than softer ear tissue, they are seldom used with beef
cattle and virtually never with dairy cattle.
Tattooing has been adopted by beef breed associations as a standard
for identifying animals, as it is the most satisfactory method
for permanent individual marking. When properly done, a tattoo
is permanent, definite and not easily changed without disfiguring
the animal. Breed associations have developed a system for tattooing
that results in unique ID. Each herd is assigned a two-to-four-
letter code, each year is assigned a letter and each animal within
a year is given a number. For example, the tattoo ABC 12W (Figure
5) would identify, within herd ABC, animal 12, tagged in 2009.
Contact individual breed associations to receive herd letters
for animal registrations. Commercial cattle can also be tattooed,
but the practice is not widespread due to the labour required.
Some commercial beef producers have adopted the same ID system
to maintain unique ID for within- and across-herd performance
evaluations without actually tattooing the animal.
To ensure readable, lasting tattoos, it is important to tattoo
when animals are young and well restrained. Equipment can vary,
so follow the instructions included with purchased applicators.
Branding is a method of permanent cattle ID, adopted mostly for
proving ownership. There are two methods of branding: hot branding
and freeze branding. Hot branding is used extensively in Western
Canada but very little in Ontario. Freeze branding is rarely adopted
Hot or fire brands are quickly applied and inexpensive. The hot
iron destroys the hair follicles, resulting in a permanent, hair-free
scar in the shape of the iron used. Good brands are achieved by
properly heating irons, by clipping hair from the hide where the
brand is to be applied and by keeping irons clean. Irons can be
heated by wood fire, propane gas fire or electric attachments.
Good brands require no more than 3-5 seconds of even contact with
the hide. Branding irons are custom-made of iron, steel or stainless
steel. The actual brand takes many shapes and forms. Most provinces
require and have provided for the recording of brands, which are
allotted for a fee, for a period of time. In Ontario, the Ontario
Cattlemen's Association maintains a registry of brands in accordance
with the Livestock Branding Act, 1981.
The disadvantage of hot branding is that it damages the value
of the hide used for leather production. The practice is also
receiving increased scrutiny as an animal welfare issue.
Freeze branding works quite differently from hot branding in that
a very cold branding iron applied to the hide results in freezing
the hair follicles. The result varies, depending on the duration
of application. A shorter application time results in hair growing
back white, and a longer application time results in no hair regrowth.
Herds that have experimented with freeze branding and found it
successful are usually herds of black-haired cattle. There are
many steps required for successful freeze branding, so it is very
important to closely follow the manufacturer's instructions
Figure 6: Figure 1. RFID handheld reader reading
Using RFID Within the Herd
The minimum requirement for regulated ID only requires RFID tags
to be applied when leaving the herd of origin. Many operations choose
to tag all cattle within the herd and are utilizing RFID technology
within their production systems to improve herd management. Operations
such as feedlots that purchase all their feeders with RFID tags
have an ideal scenario for incorporating RFID within their production
systems. Some producers are also combining other methods of ID along
with RFID for management purposes, such as dangle ear tags with
other herd numbers. These numbers are matched within the herd record
An effective RFID system within a herd helps producers by capturing
the numbers electronically, thereby reducing labour costs and human
error in entries. This information is then automatically transferred
to a computer system with a compatible herd management software
program. There are many different software packages available and
more in development that a producer can use to best fit any particular
operation or management need.
RFID numbers are captured using handheld (Figure 6) and panel readers
that can read tags from 6-40 in. away. Handheld readers have a much
shorter reading distance than panel readers. Readers can transfer
information from tags directly to computers through either a direct
line or a wireless network. Handheld readers can store information
within the unit for batch transfer to computer at a later time.
Readers can also be connected to other electronic devices, such
as an electronic weigh scale, so that ID can be automatically associated
with production information. For example, a reader can store production
information to allow chute-side analysis for average daily gain
calculation as animals are weighed.
Another important function of RFID on-farm is recording animal
movement for traceability. The ID numbers for animals ready to be
shipped off the farm are transferred to the next owner easily through
a printed report or a database that tracks animal movement. This
can also be done via e-mail or through a central data system on
the Internet. Using RFID and electronic systems transfers your information
Over time, the purpose of cattle ID has evolved from proving ownership
to identifying individuals within a herd to creating unique RFID
numbers for all cattle in Canada. National ID is critical to maintaining
national herd health status and protecting markets for Canadian
cattle and products. As the technology advances, RFID will become
an integral part of within-herd management systems and animal traceability
from the farm to the beef product purchased by consumers.
This Factsheet was written by Don Blakely, Beef Quality Assurance
Program Lead, OMAFRA, Elora.