Cattle identification and traceability: consultation

This consultation seeks views on cattle identification and traceability in Scotland. It asks questions on use of bovine electronic identification (EID), explains how this could be achieved and also asks questions on other aspects of the current cattle identification regime.

Part 2: Identification, Registration & Movement – Bovine EID


All cattle in the UK, the European Union and beyond are required to be uniquely identified with approved ear tags, and their movements recorded throughout their lifetime. The system is known as identification, registration and movement (IRM), and is essential for disease prevention, control, eradication, and the protection of public health.

All cattle must be ‘double tagged’ in order to meet legislative requirements, to enable livestock traceability and for the protection of public health. These tags are known as the ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ ear tags.

The primary tag, which may be inserted in either ear, referred to as a ‘flag’ tag, must comply with various specifications including that they be made of flexible plastic, at least 45 mm in height and 55 mm wide. The characters must be a minimum of 5 mm high, it must bear the GB symbol of a crown (or name or code of the competent authority), the letters UK and the unique identification number.

The tag approval process is carried out on behalf of all administrations in GB by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA). All approved ear tags must meet the specifications as set out in Regulation (EC) No 1760/2000, Commission Regulation (EC) No 911/2004, (both of which now form part of part of domestic law) and the Cattle Identification (Scotland) Regulations 2007.

Bovine EID is the identification of cattle with an electronic identifier. Using EID when identifying cattle does not, in itself, improve on current cattle traceability. EID requires to have in place data systems and electronic data transfer (EDT) elements in order to support its successful introduction and realise its full benefits.

The ScotMoves+ system, operated by ScotEID, manages all cattle birth, death and movement recording in Scotland. Its introduction in October 2021 was a key milestone towards the future introduction of bovine EID. The introduction of EID offers the possibility of further efficiencies to be realised on-farm and throughout the entire supply chain. It is aimed at improving accuracy and speed compared to the current paper-based systems, most notably paper cattle passports. The removal of paper and the move towards a digital solution aligns with the Scottish Government’s vision to ensure Scotland becomes a leading digital nation.

The key to widespread adoption of EID is to provide users with flexibility in terms of how IDs are read and transferred onto the database using EDT.

Electronic reading, in conjunction with EDT, can offer the following benefits to the livestock sector:

  • reduced administrative burden and labour cost savings, in particular for food processing establishments such as slaughterhouses and markets,
  • opportunities to improve the scale and efficiency of data usage on-farm and throughout the supply chain,
  • strengthening measures and providing enhanced traceability for disease prevention, control, eradication, and the protection of public health,
  • improved accuracy and speed in relation to the current paper-based systems (removal of paper cattle passports and paper holding registers),
  • health and safety advantages including reduced handling of animals and improved animal welfare,
  • faster reading of animal IDs meaning animals can be read in batches as opposed to manual reading/intervention,
  • the prevention of fraud, and
  • the facilitation of genetic improvements in farming.

Bovine EID Industry Stakeholder Working Group

The Bovine EID Industry Stakeholder Working Group is made up of the following representatives. The group meets bi-annually to discuss future policy in relation to the identification of bovine animals and the on-going outcomes of the Scottish bovine EID pilot.

  • National Farmers Union Scotland (Chair)
  • Food Standards Scotland (FSS)
  • Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society (SAOS)/ScotEID
  • Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers (SAMW)
  • Scottish Dairy Cattle Association (SDCA)
  • Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland (IAAS)
  • Scottish Beef Association (SBA)
  • Quality Meat Scotland (QMS)
  • Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF)
  • market and abattoir operators
  • the Scottish Government (SG)

The group set out proposals in June 2017 for a voluntary industry-led pilot on the early adoption of electronic identification of cattle (bovine EID) in Scotland.

Recognising the importance of testing technologies and researching different systems, including the benefits that it could bring to both the industry and government, we welcomed this initiative.

The industry group agreed that SAOS/ScotEID was best placed to research and develop proposals for the bovine EID pilot, given their experience and success in the development of similar systems.

Bovine EID pilot - an industry-led initiative

Following the industry request detailed above, EID for cattle has been trialled progressively in Scotland over the past decade. This pilot project has been delivered by our operational partners, SOAS/ScotEID, who currently operate and manage the multispecies database system for Scotland. Building on experience gained during previous trials on sheep, ScotEID was able to explore how LF electronic tags were already used by a minority of cattle farms for management purposes. Further testing on UHF electronic tags was conducted under both controlled workshop conditions and in-situ across farms, markets, and abattoirs, which provided a comprehensive range of information capturing the findings gained over the significant period of investigation.

Initial research indicated that LF electronic tags could only achieve a 95% read rate for animals moving through the supply chain. At the time LF electronic tags were introduced for the sheep sector, a 95% read rate was tolerable. However, this was not accepted by the EU commission for cattle due to the requirement that all cattle must have an individual lifetime ID and, as such, cannot enter the food chain without one. All attempts to establish 100% read rates through the supply chain using LF electronic tags were unsuccessful.

LF technology also offered little advantage over the visual reading of cattle tags (as it provides for a reading distance of 12 cm) and thus continued to expose stock handlers to health and safety risks and cattle to welfare stress. Given Scottish beef cattle are generally unused to close human contact, these were found to be significant concerns. The longer reading distance (in excess of 100 cm), provided by UHF technology would reduce the need for handlers to come into close contact with cattle and reduce the risk to animal and handler.

It was also found that dairy farms already using LF technology for parlour management faced problems due to a lack of anti-collision properties: the addition of an official LF electronic tag was found to clash with the existing LF collar already in use. This resulted in one or both LF devices failing to be read reliably or at all.

To assess the potential for using UHF technology for bovine EID, ScotEID tested under both controlled and commercial (field-trial) conditions. UHF electronic tags were found to provide a variable reading range. Varying the antenna signal strength, provided for a very close read range up to around 4 or 5 metres (reducing the health and safety risk). UHF technology is also anti-collision so several tags can be read simultaneously, for example when cattle are moving through a gate, or within a pen or field.

The pilot study reported that UHF technology has no conflict with existing LF-based systems on dairy farms and other LF management systems used on-farm. In addition, the housing of the EID chip within the primary ear tag will allow keepers to use button or metal fold over tags as the secondary means of identification.

A full report into the findings of the pilot can be found at - ScotEID Report Using UHF For Cattle Electronic Identification August 2023 - ScotEID Library ([1]

Standards and numbering

The Scottish Government already has the digital capability to implement EID regardless of the standard on which it is based. However, the database system used at GB level cannot currently accommodate the numbering formats that would be required by existing ISO standards. Adoption of such an ISO standard would, at present, therefore prevent interoperability with the GB database.

The International Standards Organisation (ISO)[2] has published technical standards related to electronic identification of animals. ISO 11784 is an international standard which specifies the structure of the identification code which can be read using low frequency (LF) technology. ISO 6881, which lays down a standard for encoding animal identification codes used in UHF transponders, was published in December 2023. ISO 6881 uses the same encoding structure as ISO 11784 (the current LF equivalent).

To allow continued use of existing cattle identification numbers, the ScotEID bovine EID pilot has been using electronic tags based on the United States Department for Agriculture (USDA) interim UHF standard[3]. As this standard facilitates the use of existing identification numbers, it allows for interoperability with current legacy IT systems in GB and it does not require a numbering change in order for cattle IDs to be ‘what you see is what you get’ (‘WYSIWYG’). With WYSIWYG, the number recorded on the database is the same as the number recorded on the tag.

A choice between UHF standards would be influenced by the desired timetable for adoption of EID and the speed at which GB IT systems can be replaced or updated to accommodate the numbering format required by ISO 6881.

Whilst it is generally preferable to adopt technology that is based on internationally recognised standards, the USDA standard is a ready-made solution that could be adopted without the need to wait for legacy GB systems to be upgraded or replaced. Depending on the speed at which GB systems are updated/replaced, use of the USDA standard may accordingly allow for earlier adoption of EID in Scotland.

The Scottish Government does not consider that adoption of the USDA standard would prevent subsequent implementation of ISO compliant UHF (or LF) technology. If keepers were initially required to use the UHF tags meeting the USDA standard, the rules could be changed at a later date to instead require that new-born cattle be identified with EID tags encoded using an ISO standard. UHF readers have the capability to be configured to recognise multiple standards and there is no ‘collision’ between UHF and LF being read on the same animal.

It is the Scottish Governments understanding that administrations across GB intend to move away from ‘UK’ as a country code prefix and to use the two-letter alpha code ‘GB’ where used visibly and the three-digit numeric code ‘826’ where used electronically. Accordingly, it is envisaged that electronic ear tags will have the prefix ‘GB’ printed on them and will have the prefix ‘826’ encoded onto them. Scottish Government will continue to work to ensure the smooth delivery of any future changes.

Bovine EID and traceability across UK and EU

The UK and Welsh Governments are currently developing proposals on bovine EID for England and Wales respectively. No announcement has been made by any of the UK administrations on final proposals concerning implementation of bovine EID. The current traceability IT systems operated by the other administrations would not accommodate current ISO standards for bovine EID due to the complexities of the numbering standards (whereas Scotland already has the capability to handle all EID standards). Any mandatory introduction of bovine EID would be subject to the capabilities of systems used across GB/UK. This consultation will contribute to the evidence base for Scottish Ministers to consider and develop future legislative proposals.

Use of electronic ear tags as official means of identification

The Scottish Government envisages a future in which bovine animals are routinely identified with electronic ear tags. Industry groups have requested that the use of electronic tags be made mandatory. They consider this necessary in order for the full benefits of EID to be realised. Mandatory use of electronic ear tags could be implemented in a number of ways. For example, a requirement for use of electronic ear tags could be introduced for all cattle born after a certain date, with any requirements for animals born prior to that date (‘the historical herd’) introduced at a later date. More detailed discussion and questions about implementation are set out below.

If UHF technology were adopted as the basis for electronic ear tags used as official means of identification, the specified numbering format for new-born cattle could be either that specified by ISO 6881 or the USDA standard. Choice of the specific standard would depend on the timing of introduction of the new rules. Similarly, if LF technology were adopted it would follow the numbering format specified under ISO 11784 however, timing would be dependent on I.T systems being in place in other areas of GB to accommodate a new numbering format.

Question 1 - Do you support use of electronic ear tags as an official means of identification in cattle?

Question 2 - Should ultra-high frequency (UHF) or low frequency (LF) technology be used?

Question 3 - Do you support the use of any other forms of electronic identification as official means of identification (either as primary or secondary identification)?

Mandatory use of EID for new-born cattle

The Scottish Government proposes introducing a requirement that all new-born cattle be identified with an electronic ear tag, the type of which to be specified in future. Such a rule will ensure widespread use of EID across Scotland within a few years.

It is envisaged that the electronic ear tag would be the primary tag and that animals would continue to also be identified by a secondary tag. It is also envisaged that keepers could continue to apply management tags to their animals (i.e. tags that are not required by legislation). As is currently the case in relation to conventional ear tags, the electronic ear tag would need to be applied within a specified period of time after birth. Any introduction would allow time for keepers to consider the new identification requirements and prepare accordingly.

Currently, if you keep cattle for cultural and historical use (except for fairs and exhibitions), instead of identifying them by way of an ear tag, the use of an electronic identifier in the form of a ruminal bolus is permitted. Whilst the use of injectable transponders could also be permitted as a form of EID, they are not considered a practical solution given their nature to migrate and difficulty in retrieving.

Question 4 - Do you agree that there should be a legal requirement for new-born cattle to be identified with electronic ear tags?

Question 5 - If yes to Question 4, should current tagging exemptions remain or should other categories of animals be exempted?

Adoption of EID in the historical herd

The introduction of a rule requiring application of electronic ear tags to new-born cattle would, assuming full compliance, over time result in all cattle in Scotland being electronically identified (unless any exceptions from the rule were put in place). Once all animals in the historical herd (i.e. animals alive at the time of introduction of a requirement for new-born animals to be identified with electronic tags) had died or been exported, subject to any exceptions, there would be no animals that could be officially identified without use of an electronic tag.

The adoption of EID could be accelerated by introducing additional requirements for use of electronic ear tags in relation to the historical herd. However, a renumbering exercise may be required in order to replace a conventional ear tag with an electronic ear tag. Such a need may arise because the Scottish Government considers that official means of identification should be ‘what you see is what you get’ (‘WYSIWYG’). With WYSIWYG, the number recorded on the database is the same as the number recorded on the tag electronically. If taking a WYSIWYG approach, the need for renumbering would arise if cattle in the historical herd are required to be identified with an electronic tag encoded using the applicable ISO standard for LF or UHF tags (such encoding cannot accommodate the number format currently used for cattle identification).

If the USDA standard were adopted generally for EID in Scotland, there would be no need for renumbering of animals in the historical herd or for a different standard to be used for animals in the historical herd (the USDA standard can accommodate the current numbering format). If an ISO standard were adopted for new-born animals, adoption of the USDA standard for the historical herd would avoid the need for renumbering of animals in the historical herd when retagged using EID. This would result in two different numbering formats for bovine EID being used at the same time.

Regardless of whether renumbering would be required, requirements for use of EID in the historical herd could be introduced in various ways. A date could be set by which all animals in the historical herd would be required to be retagged with an electronic tag. Together with a requirement that new-born cattle be identified with an electronic tag, this would result in universal requirement for bovine EID in Scotland. However, it would involve the need for retagging of animals even where there is no intention for them to be moved from their holding.

Alternatively, a requirement for use of EID for the historical herd could be ‘event driven’. For example, the requirement to identify an animal with an electronic tag could be triggered by movement of the animal from its holding (e.g. to another holding or to a market). This would not in itself achieve universal requirement for use of EID but would ensure that third persons taking receipt of cattle from a keeper would enjoy the benefits of EID. In the absence of such an event, the Scottish Government could permit the use of electronic tags as official means of identification for animals in the historical herd, should the keeper wish to voluntarily retag the animal.

Question 6 - Do you think that there should be a requirement to identify animals in the ‘historical herd’ (animals which are alive and are already identified) if and when EID is introduced?

Question 7 - If so, should there be a requirement to apply EID to all animals in the historical herd by a certain date or should the need to use EID be ‘event driven’?



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