Izzy Franklin had duct-taped a dangle tag to each of his massive ears—one yellow, one red—and was prancing his bulk around the War Wagon Saloon instructing no one and everyone, “Guess who I am, guess who I am.”
The demonstration drew a few chuckles, but Peetie Womack banged the gavel—a bronzed Copenhagen can—on the heavily scarred head table, calling the special meeting of the Rio Rojo Cattlemen's Association to order. The purpose was to discuss the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) and how members might or intended to comply.
“Point taken, Izzy, now sit down and take those tags off your ears so we can concentrate,” commanded Peetie.
So far, the group at least acted like it was eager to hear about the recent NAIS listening session that Peetie had attended. A larger crowd than was usual at these hastily called meetings had also shown their interest by perusing the NAIS information and other ID-related literature strewn across a table at the back of the room.
“As you know,” began Peetie, “The sole purpose of this national system is to make it so that any head of livestock, cattle in this case, that turns up with something like Foot and Mouth or BSE can be traced back to all previous locations of residence within 48 hours. That means two things up front: First, every location where livestock exist or could exist have to be labeled with a unique identification number, which USDA is calling the premises identification number; Second, every head of cattle are going to have to be identified in a permanent way so that they can be tracked back to these individual locations.”
“We've had permanent identification for better than a century. They're called brands,” interrupted Hooter.
A couple of Amens and a burst of applause later, Peetie resumed. “I know boys, I know. We've plowed that field among ourselves umpteen times. But, brands identify cattle as part of a group, not individually. And, they'll have to be identified individually in order to trace individuals back to individual locations…Izzy, I asked you once, get those tags off your ears.”
“I'm trying,” growled Izzy. In fact at that very moment he was pulling hard on both tags, which in turn were pulling and stretching his elastic earlobes into all sorts of painful looking shapes.
“So, USDA says job one is to get all the premises identified, and they claim they will begin doing that this summer.”
Hooter let forth the loudest sigh he could muster. “What's your calendar say, Peetie? Mine says it's already half past firecracker time, meaning those boys are going to have to show up earlier, stay later or quit flapping their gums about inconclusive BSE tests if they hope to get that accomplished.”
“Hear, Hear!” shouted Cousin Charley. Another burst of applause.
“Hooter, we all know where you stand on the sundry issues you wedged into that single statement, unsolicited, I might add,” scolded Peetie. “All I'm telling you is what USDA has said they want to do. Whether it's this summer or this century, the point is that premises identification is supposed to happen first. And, supposedly, USDA will leave it up to the animal health officials in each state to determine, with the producers in each state, what constitutes a premises.”
“You mean to tell me I'm going to have to label all my pastures with these numbers and tell them every time I move cattle from one to the next,” said one of the Duggan twins, which twin no one could tell for sure.
“That's a great question, ah, um, Mr. Duggan,” said Peetie. “That's going to be up to the animal health officials and producers in each state. Best as I can tell, the only time you'd have to report movement of your cattle is when you sell them or when you move them to another unique premises where they could be commingled with cattle you don't own. In other words, if you moved cattle from two of your ranch pastures into a third one, you wouldn't be reporting that—they'd all be part of the same premises. On the other hand, if you moved cattle to some of Delmar's lease pasture where he had some of his own cattle, then you'd report the movement.”
At hearing his name, Delmar Jacobs looked up between sips of Pearl: “S-s-s-someone need grass?”
“Not yet, but we'll keep you posted,” glared Peetie. “And Izzy, for the last time, take those infernal tags off. Hooter, take him over to the corner and help him, please.”
The group watches Izzy and Hooter shamble off toward the pool table, neither of them looking too happy.
“So, premises identification will be first, then will come the issuance of official NAIS numbers to identify each head of stock individually,” continued Peetie.
“When's that supposed to happen?” asked the other Duggan twin.
“No one knows for sure, other than the fact that it will come after premises identification,” said Peetie.
“So, if I wanted to buy tags with these official numbers on them today, I couldn't?” wondered one of the twins.
Peetie shrugged his slight shoulders: “Far as I know, that's right.”
“Well, when the tags are available, what will they be, dangle tags, metal clips like a Bangs tag, electronic, what?” wondered the first twin.
“No one knows for sure,” said Peetie. “USDA has said so far that they want tags to be technologically neutral, meaning any type of tag could be used as long as it has the NAIS number. On the other hand, the Cattle Working Group, which is supposedly supposed to be telling USDA what the industry wants is telling them the tags should be RFID.”
Delmar Jacobs began whistling the tune to Mayberry RFD.
“No, no,” scowled Peetie, “RFID. It stands for Radio Frequency Identification. They're those buttons you stick in the ear; some of them come as part of a regular dangle tag.”
The Dugan twins looked at one another and shook their heads in silence.
Bob Davis from Apache Feeders interjected, “Far as I'm concerned, once they decide what type or types of tags can be used, we ought to be able to comply easily enough. Other than a few holdouts with their brisket notches, most everyone around here is already using some sort of dangle tag, and some of those RFID.”
Hooter looked up when he heard Bob emphasize the holdouts. “Like I've told you before, I may not always have a bag of tags handy, but I've always got a sharp knife. Speaking of which…” He turned back to work on Izzy's ear accessories.
“But who says we've got to do any of this to begin with?” wondered Cousin Charley.
“Ya-ya-ya-yahhhh-you bet, who said?” echoed Delmar.
“Well again, best as I can tell, USDA hasn't made it mandatory. And, while they've hinted at it, you get the impression they think the marketplace will make it mandatory before they ever have to make a regulatory requirement.”
“Meaning it would be easier for them to neglect paying for any part of a national ID system,” said Bob.
“Yeah, it makes sense they would look at it like that,” agreed Charley with disgust.
Just as Peetie was beginning to respond there was a great crash in the back of the room, then a mighty howl, or the other way around. Izzy had come unstuck. More specifically, though Hooter had to stand on top of the pool table and heave up on the tags with all his might, like pulling a stuck calf from the goo, he'd got the tags off, doing a backward somersault off of the pool table and into the wall when they gave way.
Izzy cupped his hands around his swelling ears and looked from one person to the next for sympathy.
“They're still on your head. Now, you and the gymnast there resting on the floor straighten up and pay attention,” grumped Peetie.
“So,” said one of the twins, “Supposedly we're going to have to register our premises and get a number for them. And, supposedly, we're going to have to tag all of our cattle with these official numbers, and report the movement of them in particular circumstances. But, we're not sure when any of that is supposed to happen, how exactly it's supposed to happen, who's paying for it, or by whose authority we're going to be required to do it.”
“Well, when you look at that way, yeah,” said Peetie. “The one thing we do know is that it has to be done and why.”
“I'll second that,” said old man Grantham from the back row. He ran big country, lots of cattle, long as anyone could remember. He never said much at these meetings, but when he did it was usually worth the attention.
He continued, “The way I see it, whoever, however, and whenever the powers that be decide doesn't really matter a whole bunch. What matters is that a system gets in place so that when something major crops up, like Hoof and Mouth, we can get it contained faster, meaning we can all get back into the market quicker, meaning we all have more of a chance to survive.”
Heads were nodding up and down in agreement. “In the mean time,” Grantham said with a twinkle and a grin, “When I'm out prowling for cows with my scope and I spy some, well sir, I've got them identified.”