From producer meetings to survey questions to phone conversations, “Where do I start?” seems to be the biggest question on producers’ minds regarding the animal-identification program and other programs that will open marketing opportunities, such as source verification.

First off, try not to confuse the two. Animal identification and source verification are two different issues within the beef industry.

Animal identification, as proposed by USDA’s National Animal Identification System, is a national program intended to identify specific animals in the United States and record their movement over their life spans to enable 48-hour traceback of any diseased or exposed animal. The proposed NAIS plan will keep a database containing the following information on a location: premises-ID number, name of entity, owner or contact person, address, phone number, operation type, date activated, date retired and reason retired.

Source verification, on the other hand, is an auditable trail showing the source of the animal from farm to plate. “Source verification is a means to document the origin of livestock and meat entering various markets,” says John Nalivka, president and owner of Sterling Marketing Inc., a livestock and meat industry consulting firm, and principal of Sterling Solutions LLC, USDA process-verified source-identification and traceability program “Source verification is not source identification. Identification is the starting point. While tagging cattle will identify the source of those cattle, it does not verify or validate the source.”

As alliances and other niche programs expand, source verification will become more important and provide some producers additional market opportunities if they can verify that their animals meet certain requirements (see related story).

Right now, most of the focus is on national animal identification and what steps you should take to get involved in the program.

Start by registering for a premises number
The premises is a location that has a mailing address, livestock and livestock-handling facilities, according to NAIS. If a rancher keeps cattle on several different pieces of land but manages them as one unit, moving cattle between properties and commingling regularly, one premises number probably is sufficient. However, if an owner operates multiple ranches and manages them separately with separate herds that are never commingled, there could be benefits to registering each ranch separately.

Individual states are responsible for assigning the premises numbers. You can contact your state veterinarian or department of agriculture for information on obtaining a premises number.

Several state and regional pilot programs are still working to identify issues that need to be addressed with NAIS program. For example, the Northwest Pilot Project is a consortium of seven states  —  California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada and Utah. This group started about a year ago to provide information and make recommendations to USDA on the national ID program. The primary objective of the project is to work through the practical realities of moving cattle within that region.

“What we wanted to do is find participants that move their cattle through a number of different states, commingle them a few times, then split them up and send them to three different feedlots before they move onto different packers,” says Rick Stott, chairman of the board of directors for the Northwest Pilot Project and vice president of business development for Agri Beef.

NWPP is also evaluating different identification technologies to get a better idea of how cattle move through the market and how the system might work under these types of conditions. “Right now, we have 18,000 head of cattle committed in all seven states. In May, we’re holding a conference to discuss what we’re seeing that works and what doesn’t. We’ll be able to talk about premises management, animal traceability and how it works.”

Get animal-ID numbers
Once you’ve registered your premises, contact your state veterinarian or agriculture department to find out how to obtain official animal-identification numbers (AIN). According to NAIS, these numbers will be issued to the premises and linked to the animals via different identification methods, such as ear tags or electronic identification tags. Many states are still in the preliminary stages of implementing NAIS, so they may not have an AIN manager in place yet.

AIN will be linked to the premises ID. For example, Neil Hammerschmidt, NAIS coordinator with USDA, says that the cow will have one tag with the animal-identification number printed on it. When the animal is sold, the animal’s movement will be reported, allowing the database to associate the animal-identification number to the buyer’s premises-ID number. NAIS database will not keep production or other proprietary information. That will be up to individuals to decide if they want to use private database-management programs to keep that type of information.

Keep up-to-date as program evolves
NAIS program is far from set in stone, with several issues and concerns that pilot programs across the country are identifying needing to be addressed. For example, NWPP identified one such issue  —recording the birth date.

“This is an obvious question that still needs to be decided,” says Mr. Stott. Other countries like Australia, he points out, include birth dates with the animal-identification program. “If that information is there, then the packer has the ability to get that information and validate the age of the animals.” That information would be beneficial in some export markets and could benefit producers in their marketing.

Mr. Nalivka doesn’t feel the age data should be included in NAIS program since it for animal health purposes only. Rather age information can be used as a marketing tool for individuals should they choose to provide that information.

As these pilot projects conclude and information is presented to USDA concerning the national ID program, some changes may be made. You can keep informed on those changes by contacting your state veterinarian or cattlemen’s association, as well as through NAIS Web site listed below.