Some want it sooner, some want it later, some want it different, and some don’t want it at all. In any case, animal identification is a reality, and the emergence of a national system will bring fundamental changes to the beef industry.

Neil Hammerschmidt, National ID Coordinator with USDA/APHIS, says all three components of the national premises-ID system  —  the premises allocator, national repository and state registry systems  —  are now in place, and 49 states are operational on a premises registration system.

With states registering about 1,500 premises every week, interest is strong and consistent across the country. Mr. Hammerschmidt says that APHIS has had excellent cooperation from industry organizations and state agencies.

In its draft plan for the National Animal Identification System, APHIS includes a timetable that calls for the animal-identification numbering system to be operational this fall, mandatory premises and animal identification by January 2008 and required reporting of defined animal movements by January 2009.

The agency has endured some criticism that the timetable is too long, and Mr. Hammerschmidt acknowledges that 2009 might seem like a long time away. But considering all that needs to take place, it is realistic, he says.

Part of the reasoning behind USDA’s timeline is to allow enough time for due process and legislative action. The draft plan calls for mandatory participation, and the agency hopes to address confidentiality concerns with an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act. Both of those provisions will require new legislation.

Mike John, a producer from Missouri and president-elect of NCBA, wants the industry to get started. He admits that there are considerable challenges to building an effective traceability program. The logistics of installing equipment for recording every animal through sale barns and stocker operations at the “speed of commerce” are daunting. It might be unrealistic to expect to be able to track every animal every day.

Mr. John believes, however, that the industry needs to work toward meeting traceability goals within the constraints of existing technology. Get a program up and running, track as many cattle as possible, and improve over time as technology evolves and participation grows.

Mr. Hammerschmidt stresses that wheels are already turning to meet the goals of USDA’s timeline. Voluntary premises registration is underway, and this fall, the animal-identification numbering system will be operational on a voluntary basis.

How quickly the system grows during the voluntary phase depends on industry participation, but the biggest challenge will be to build a system for efficient data collection. Mr. Hammerschmidt says he frequently hears concerns over development and administration of the database. But, technically these are easy compared with the daunting task of building an infrastructure and actually collecting animal movement information each time the animal moves to new premises   —  four times on average  —  and reporting that movement efficiently. “The challenges are greater than many people realize.”

A learning process
Last August, APHIS distributed $11.64 million through 29 cooperative agreements for state and tribal pilot projects to test and explore various aspects of the NAIS. The projects are still underway, but Mr. Hammerschmidt says cooperators are gaining valuable experience and learning what works and what does not. Every environment is different, and the pilot projects offer the opportunity to test systems in a variety of cattle operations and markets. In Kansas, for example, researchers are evaluating methods for tracking cattle through the transport process.

Rick Stott works for Agri Beef Co. of Boise, Idaho, as vice president of business development and regulatory affairs. He also serves as chairman of the Northwest Pilot Project, a seven-state effort to evaluate information systems for tracking livestock movements funded by USDA.

With over 20,000 cattle enrolled, the project mirrors the NAIS but on a smaller scale. It uses a Web-based system in which participants or their service providers enter data on group and individual-animal movements and transactions.

The process involves scanning tags or identifying groups of animals, then going online to enter the numbers and events for cattle as they enter commerce. Mr. Stott says direct input from producers is a simple, viable method for data collection. Naturally, there is a learning curve, but he says most producers have no problem after the first time they use the system. Sale barns, he adds, also have the option of providing this service.

Mr. Stott says preliminary results from the NWPP indicate that the Web-based reporting system can work well, but the biggest challenge will be to build a data-collection infrastructure in the “middle” of the beef-production chain  —   sale barns, feedyards and stocker operations. Those segments, he says, need some incentive to install equipment for identifying and tracking cattle. Current RFID technology is functional but not perfect, he adds, leading to challenges such as needing to scan tags at close range, one at a time, to obtain consistent readings. But, we have to start somewhere, he says. As the system grows, the market will drive innovation and RFID will improve rapidly.

Major marketing groups have enquired about enrolling cattle in the NWPP to gain age and source verification for marketing purposes. The group has had to turn them down because of the experimental nature of the project, but, Mr. Stott says, their interest indicates significant demand for the service.

The private option
While APHIS continues to move forward with the NAIS plan, Mr. Hammerschmidt says the agency remains open to industry solutions. One such solution is gaining considerable support from some stakeholders.

In response to producer concerns over confidentiality, NCBA’s Animal Identification Commission has developed a proposal for a private-industry, multi-species consortium to administer the data collected in a national ID system. The plan includes an ambitious timeline, calling for Beta testing this fall and implementation beginning in January 2006.

On July 21, seven members of the House Ag Committee sent a letter to USDA Secretary Mike Johanns that stated, “We think private animal-ID systems will speed the process of implementing a national ID program, enhance U.S. markets and add value to U.S. livestock.”

Mr. John stresses that NCBA has led the effort, but the consortium will be a separate entity, with its own bylaws and leadership representing multiple species groups. This arrangement will keep animal-movement data in private hands, while allowing government access when needed for specific animal-health and security reasons. Also, the consortium will be a non-profit organization and will not generate revenue for NCBA or any other industry group.

Currently, NCBA has had good interest and involvement from other industry groups, particularly pork and dairy. Some of the other organizations  are taking more of a wait-and-see approach.

Program planners chose BearingPoint Inc., a large information-technology company, to handle the data. The system, however, will accommodate data from existing service providers, meaning producers who currently use various services for collecting and analyzing individual-animal data will not need to change suppliers. Integrating data from various service providers into a central database is no problem, Mr. Stott says. The NWPP does it, as do other industries.

Many of the companies that provide ID and data services, Mr. John says, have expressed interest in participating. These suppliers represent large numbers of individually identified cattle, and their participation could populate the database rather quickly.

“I am encouraged by the NCBA ID Commission’s efforts toward an industry-driven solution,” Mr. Stott says. It will be able to protect privacy, adapt to and utilize new technology, and offer profit opportunities to participants. While the program itself is non-profit, it would provide business for service providers and a mechanism for adding value to cattle at each production stage. With administration of the program in private hands, USDA could focus its efforts on education and on responding to disease emergencies. “The sooner we get started, the better,” he says. “Canada and Australia already are several years ahead of us.”

Mr. John says the industry proposal is not intended to compete with USDA, but rather to work in partnership to conform to established standards and meet the agency’s goals while addressing concerns over confidentiality. In discussions with the Secretary of Agriculture and other officials, he says, “We have never been discouraged from proceeding with an industry solution.”

The ‘M’ word
An effective tracking program will require close to 100-percent participation across the cattle-production and marketing chain. Government and industry officials acknowledge that participation at that level probably will require some aspects of the program to become mandatory. Mr. John says, though, that he remains optimistic that individual identification can offer benefits with enough value to drive voluntary participation.

Mr. Stott notes that when you look at how people adapt to change or new technology, there is a typical pattern. Innovators, representing about one-third of the population, see an opportunity for capturing value and respond quickly. The next third wait, but once they see it working they get onboard voluntarily. The final third won’t change until forced to, either by government mandate or by significant price discounts for undocumented cattle. The way it looks, that day will arrive within the next two years. 

For more information on animal identification, go online: From APHIS