Up front, the industry is still more than a wish and a pen stroke away from a standardized national animal identification system, voluntary or otherwise.
After all, best as anyone can tell, outside of particular systems that are already employing visual or electronic identification tied to one communications platform or another, there are no standards. So far, no one is offering dollars on the table as direct incentive to identify, and until there is enough critical mass of cattle identified a particular way, packers understandably have been reluctant to install equipment and start paying for cattle based on the performance they discover tied to individuals.
For the record, several organizations representing cattle producers have moved individual animal identification toward the top of their agendas, but none have adopted a particular system, much less a common set of standards. For that matter, between private industry, producer groups and the federal government it's still unclear how such an industry-wide decision will be made or who will make it.
Indirect Incentives Increase
With that said, reality is increasing the need and demand for individual identification that can at least trace cattle back to their source of origin.
For one, according to the National Farm Animal Identification Records (FAIR) program, John Weimers, USDA's national ID coordinator recently said, “Regarding animal diseases, prevention is a priority. Granted, ID will not prevent the invasion of such diseases. Rather, it provides the infrastructure for timely response to stamp out the disease to preserve the viability of our animal industries. We must establish a national ID system that provides the ability to respond accurately and quickly.”
Given the success of the nation's brucellosis eradication program and other defacto national ID systems, presumably in the name of disease prevention, USDA began lobbying the industry for a workable voluntary system long before the tragedy of September 11 sparked worries about anthrax and other biologic agents; even before the Foot and Mouth (FMD) outbreak last year that decimated Britain's cowherd and put the U.S. on heightened alert.
In fact, two years ago Weimers told producers if the industry couldn't come up with a satisfactory voluntary system within three years, USDA might be forced to establish a mandatory system.
So, logic says that given recent events, the government, at the behest of constituents, senses increased urgency to get a national ID system in place.
On the other side of the demand equation is raw economics. Sure there are already producers who have begun identifying every head of cattle on their place, managing them individually and doing so because they say it makes them more money. More basic than this, however, is a growing industry awareness about the value associated with just knowing the source or sources of groups of cattle.
As an example, a study conducted by the University of Saskatchewan underscores what profitable stocker operators have know from experience: calves assembled by a single buyer from multiple sources serve up less morbidity and mortality than calves assembled by multiple buyers from multiple sources.
In the Canadian study, an average load of 60 steers (overall 32,646 spring-born steers were included) represented cattle from 20-30 farms. As the number of buyers involved in assembling a load of cattle increased, so did the risk of fatal fibrinous pneumonia.
Likewise, the 2000 Beef Stocker Survey conducted by Kansas State University (KSU) supports the notion that stocker operators with fewer head of cattle fight fewer health problems, in part because those cattle are assembled from fewer sources.
Incidentally, if you or your customers are looking for a solid one-stop information source devoted to the stocker industry, specifically, check out K-State's stocker website at beefstockerusa.org.
In the KSU survey, 81.8 percent of small stocker operations (<500 head) experienced less than 10 percent morbidity within the first 30 days of calf arrival, while only 59.6 percent of the medium sized operations (501-2,500 head) and 54.2 percent of the larger operations (>2,500 head) could say the same.
As it turns out 41.2 percent of the cattle in the smaller operations came from the operators' own herds; 28.3 percent were purchased by operators at the local sale barn and 23.1 percent came from order buyers. Conversely, 74.6 percent of the cattle in the larger stocker operations came from order buyers; 60.9 percent of the calves in medium sized operations came from order buyers.
Keeping that in mind, 22.3 percent of the large stocker operations in the KSU survey experienced more than 20 percent morbidity within the first 30 days of arrival, compared to 15.1 percent for the medium sized operations and 5.7 percent in the small operations.
None of this is an indictment of order buying. It merely points to the fact that whether a stocker operator purchases cattle at the local sale barn himself or via an order buyer, knowing the sources and limiting them enhances the bottom line by decreasing morbidity and mortality.
Interestingly, in the same survey, a majority of respondents indicated they would like to be able to purchase cattle that had been vaccinated prior to shipment, but only seven percent said they were able to take that approach, apparently because of a lack of supply of such calves, or a lack of verified information giving them confidence the calves have in fact been vaccinated appropriately.
The reason for increased demand in pre-shipment vaccination is straightforward. In the survey, calves vaccinated before climbing on the truck experienced 6.2 percent morbidity overall, compared to 9.9 percent for those processed on arrival and 9.5 percent for those processed two to three days after arrival. Similarly, death loss on calves vaccinated pre-shipment was 0.98 percent, compared to 1.17 percent for those processed on arrival and 1.39 percent for those processed two to three days after arrival.
Bottom line, the point to all of this is that just knowing something about the source of cattle is offering economic benefit to individual producers and to the industry overall. Depending on a producer's resources and goals, individual information that goes beyond source is offering exponentially more opportunity. And, that's after considering the infrastructure for disease response mentioned by Weimers.
A Model for Beef?
Anyone who believes the beef industry is too far-flung and diverse to implement a workable national identification system can look to both the past and the present for guidance.
As for the rearview mirror, the identification system employed by the brucellosis program for years seems to have been effective enough to eradicate the disease for all intents and purposes.
As for the present, the Farm Animal Identification Records (FAIR) program mentioned earlier is already an operational system that allows for source verification and individual animal tracking. It's not a baby, either.
Holstein Association USA initiated FAIR in 1996 as a pilot program that through trial and error has evolved into a working national identification program. In the pilot program, 160 herds were enrolled, 75 of which used electronic identification tags to allow for efficient electronic data collection. Today, cattle markets in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, as well as slaughterhouses in Wisconsin and New York have “readers” in place to track FAIR-enrolled animals throughout the food production chain.
Additionally, state programs such as the Michigan Bovine TB Eradication Project, New York State Cattle Health Assurance Program and Ohio Johne's Eradication program have contracted FAIR to provide on-farm identification that integrates into day-to-day herd management systems as well as tracking abilities for disease eradication and control.
According to FAIR officials, Celie Myers, Quality Assurance Manager at Taylor Packing which process 1,800-1,900 head each day, recently explained, “What we would like to see is a universal system that maintains the identification of the animal from birth to when it is removed at the slaughterhouse. Current identification systems are not set up for trace back and lifetime identification. If we were to have an outbreak of a major disease, such as what happened in Europe with FMD, where we need to do a major trace back, we wouldn't be able to do it fast enough and we would end up with more animals under quarantine than necessary. Also, more producers would be able to adopt such a system if it could be tied into their production system on the farm.”
Odds say the beef industry will end up with a national ID system sooner or later, either voluntary or mandatory. While there's still a chance to design a voluntary system, it makes sense to press producer groups, private industry and government to get together and do so.