Keeping tabs on where the cows are

RFID tags are placed in an animal's ear

Many modern-day pet owners microchip their four-legged companions.

This is to help identify them should they become lost, injured or otherwise harmed in some way.

Farmers are doing a similar thing with their beef cattle.

They’re using radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to keep track of their animals as they move from farm to farm at various points in their lives.

These tags, which are placed in the ear, store information about each animal, such as its farm of origin, age and identification numbers, to help farmers and processors maintain and promote food safety and traceability.The tags play the role of an electronic passport of sorts.

The idea for tracing cattle movements first arose out of the mad cow crisis (the disease more formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE) in the UK in the 1990s when it became evident that in order to determine who might be at risk of illness, it was important to know where cattle had come from.

The Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA) looks after all cattle ID in this country.

Canada started requiring farmers to ear tag their cattle in January 2001 and later on that year, all packing plants began reading tags, transferring that information to the carcass and keeping that identity through to the point where it was checked over by the meat inspector.

Older style ear tags for cattle

There are many different ear tags on the market but the RFID tags allow for electronic storage and reading of data.

Their small, round shape – which you can see in the photo above – mean they can’t be lost or ripped out of the ear as easily.

The older style plastic tags (see here) could often become damaged, could only hold a small amount of information and had to be read manually by staff on farms, at auction facilities or at packing plants. This increased the potential for error in the data.

All cattle in Canada must have an RFID tag once they leave their farm of origin or birth. Cattle can’t be sold at an auction without a valid RFID tag.

Any farmers who export cattle to the United States must report the animal’s ID number and the date of export to the CCIA.

For more information on how cattle are raised or to virtually tour two real Ontario beef farms, check out

Photos sourced from the Ontario agriculture photo library –

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