With the click of a mouse, Greg Ibach recently became the first producer to register a livestock premises in Nebraska’s Animal Verification Enhancement program. Mr. Ibach, who serves as assistant director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, now has a seven-digit alpha-numeric code, assigned at the federal level, to identify his cow-calf operation.

Being the first to register in Nebraska’s new program does not, however, make Mr. Ibach unique. USDA has been able to assign unique, standardized and official premises-ID numbers to livestock operators in states around the country as a part of the Emergency Management and Response System  for many months. The system was used to support the needs of specific disease-outbreak investigations and eradication task forces. Until recently, however, there has not been a system for routine registration of all premises.

In July, USDA adopted a system originally developed by the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium as an interim solution to premises registration. This system, which has been modified to meet multiple state needs, is now owned and operated by USDA and referred to as the Standardized Premises Registration System. It is available free of charge to any state wishing to use it. In all, 25 states have requested to use the system. To date, five states are using the system and five more are scheduled for training in the near future.

In August of this year, USDA announced the selection of 29 state and tribal projects to receive a total of $11.64 million to advance the National Animal Identification System. The primary goal of these projects is to initiate and establish premises-ID programs, but some go further, with plans to field-test individual-animal-identification methods and collect movement data on animals. NAIS sets standards for numbering systems and data sharing but leaves much of the procedural details up to individual states and tribes.

Focus on premises ID
Neil Hammerschmidt, NAIS coordinator at USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service says all of the funded projects include a premises-ID component and about half are geared exclusively toward premises registration. 

States and tribes can use the funds to support the registration of premises through the Standardized Premises Registration System provided by APHIS, or through other systems that comply with NAIS data standards. In Nebraska’s case, USDA has reviewed the premises part of the NAVE system and found it in compliance with national data standards. The compliance designation, Mr. Ibach says, allows the state to begin taking premises registrations with confidence that the information will be acceptable to USDA.

Producers in Nebraska, and some other states, can access the premises registration system over the Internet at www.animalid.us, or register with paper forms or over the telephone. “The registration of locations where animals are kept is the first step toward establishing a complete individual-animal-identification system,” Mr. Ibach says.

Mr. Hammerschmidt says the funds allocated during the 2004 budget year were not enough to support projects in every sate. Some have moved ahead with premises-ID programs on their own, but states that did not receive federal funds in the first round will move to the top of the list for consideration when another $33 million becomes available in the 2005 budget. “We’re committed to bring the other states along,” he says, adding that he hopes all states will have operational premises-ID systems by the middle of 2005.

Integration for animal tracking
Part of the criteria for funding the cooperative agreements, Mr. Hammerschmidt says, was to fill “knowledge gaps” by facilitating development and evaluation of different aspects of an overall system. In NAIS planning process, he explains, species working groups identified questions or challenges to address with further study and evaluation. These generally involved logistical aspects of individual identification and tracking, and several of the funded projects include field trials intended to address these questions. In Kansas, for example, trials will explore animal transport, use of mobile technologies to link premise identification, animal location and individual-animal identification. In the Southeast, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture administers the multi-state Southeastern Livestock Network Tracking Project. Montana is gearing up for a pilot project to demonstrate premises identification and 48-hour traceback, as are several other states.

Think of NAIS as a big jigsaw puzzle. Each of the state programs represents an assignment to assemble one section of the puzzle. As the trials progress, the states will report their results to the species working groups, and, Mr. Hammerschmidt says, APHIS officials hope to use their findings as they further develop NAIS and make the information available to other states for integration into their ID programs.

Several of the projects explore how to integrate third-party service providers into the state and federal programs. One of these is in Idaho. Clarence Siroky, DVM and administrator of Idaho’s Division of Animal Industries, oversees an effort to integrate a disease reporting, licensing, brand registration and other programs into a uniform disease-monitoring system. For technical support, Idaho is working with a private-sector service provider, Global Animal Management Inc.

The primary goals of the program at this stage are to build participation at the grassroots level, identify problems and compare methods. Being a brand state, Dr. Siroky says Idaho has a tradition of animal identification and a good buy-in from producers. The biggest challenge is to build an infrastructure that involves all participants in livestock movement and commerce, including producers, brokers, sale barns, truckers, packers and others.

The physical challenge of collecting data at each stage is daunting. Much of the initial effort will be in working with Global Animal Management to build and test that infrastructure. Reliable traceability will require extensive reporting from everyone involved in animal movement, Dr. Siroky says, including the seller and validation upon arrival at the operation receiving the animals. Commingling of cattle, such as at sale barns, will require additional data collection.

Adding value
Several states have included value-added components intended to help producers use the ID infrastructure to collect information that benefits their bottom line. Mr. Hammerschmidt says APHIS supports these efforts, but stresses that the purpose of NAIS, and of the cooperative agreement funds, is protection of animal health. States and industry hold the responsibility for funding value-added aspects.

In Idaho, Dr. Siroky acknowledges that producers naturally want to know what is in it for them. Economic benefits, he says, are what will drive the program’s development and participation throughout the industry. For that reason, the state, in partnership with Global Animal Management, is working to develop a system that offers multiple benefits for management and marketing. Movement data on every individual animal, he says, probably exceeds what animal-health officials need for disease surveillance, but economic incentives will push the industry toward that goal.

Another example of a state seeking to link a value-added component to its animal-ID program is South Dakota, where state officials are offering producers a carrot, rather than a stick. The carrot, in this case, takes the form of a branded beef program known as South Dakota Certified Beef, which is closely tied to the state’s animal-identification system. The program was initiated through the South Dakota governor’s office and the state’s department of agriculture.

Eric Iversen, livestock development specialist with the state’s department of agriculture, says the initiative will provide opportunities for South Dakota beef producers and economic development for the state, while acting as a catalyst for animal identification. Currently, he says, South Dakota produces about 1.8 million cattle annually, but only about 400,000 are finished in South Dakota feedlots, and even fewer are processed at packing plants in the state. Many of the state’s feedlots, he says, operate well below their capacity for much of the year, and owners are looking for ways to feed more cattle year-around.

For eligibility, calves must be born after Jan. 1, 2004, and raised and finished in South Dakota. Producers must be Beef Quality Assurance certified prior to weaning or shipping their calves and be willing to sign an affidavit that their cattle were raised according to Beef Quality Assurance Critical Management Plan guidelines. Certification also requires a number of management specifications meant to help assure beef quality.

Mr. Iversen says one South Dakota packing company has indicated a plan to dedicate about 30 percent of its capacity to certified cattle. The program’s protocols also dovetail with those of other branded-beef companies, allowing producers to market certified cattle through other programs outside the state. “We are going to implement protocols that raise the bar on the way livestock are raised and marketed in South Dakota. We want this seal of confidence to emphasize that the state’s producers are delivering the highest quality, most wholesome and safest source/process-verified livestock to their customers. To do that, we as producers need to remove ourselves from the commodity livestock business and begin marketing the information that makes our cattle more valuable.”

The program will use individual electronic identification to track cattle from their ranch of origin through subsequent premises and into the packing plant. The state, in partnership with AgInfoLink, will maintain a database of individual animals registered in the program. As cattle change ownership, such as from a cow-calf producer to a stocker or feeder, they can maintain their certified status.

AgInfoLink, Mr. Iversen says, maintains the program’s database, but information is compartmented in ways that protect privacy while meeting several needs. First, he says, producers can work with companies of their choice for implementing their animal-identification and data-management systems. The only information going to the central database is that needed for the certification program. Contained within the certification data are each animal’s month or date of birth, premises-ID numbers, animal-identification numbers and animal-movement information that serve the needs of NAIS for animal-health and disease-monitoring purposes.

Mr. Iverson says plans include certified calf sales at local livestock auctions, providing validation of production and management claims. Dennis Hellwig, who operates Hub City Livestock Auction of Aberdeen, S.D., supports the concept. “The industry is changing,” he says, adding that the beef industry’s biggest customers, such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, are increasingly demanding source and process verification. Mr. Hellwig also believes the program can build demand for South Dakota beef and, over time, add value to South Dakota cattle. It will be good for producers and good for the industry in general, he says.

Gearing up for the certification program, he plans to conduct two source-verified sales this fall with the state department of agriculture providing RFID scanning services. Eventually, he plans to install RFID readers and computer equipment at the facility to serve buyers and sellers who participate in the certification program. He says he expects some logistical problems and challenges in the transition toward traceability but believes the industry will learn to adapt through trial and error. “We have to start somewhere,” he says.