USDA's effort to register America's livestock premises is "picking up momentum," says Bruce Knight, USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs. As of Aug. 20, 412,665-premises had been registered, representing almost 30% of the total livestock premises in the U.S. Plus, new registrations are happening at the rate of 1,000 to 1,500/week (view the progress at animalid.aphis.usda.gov/nais/premises_id/update.shtml).

Knight talked to BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly on the occasion of USDA's signing on Aug. 9 of a cooperative agreement with the American Angus Association (AAA) whereby AAA will conduct animal ID educational efforts. This includes on-site educational discussions through AAA outreach seminars and other educational programs, print advertising and direct mail, as well as e-mail communications, a news release says. Online training programs also will be available to cattle producers nationwide.

The goal, Knight says, is to register 15,000 AAA premises in the coming year or so. He estimated that about half of AAA members have already registered their premises as part of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) and called the USDA/AAA partnership on premises registration "a significant stamp of approval."

In a release, John Crouch, AAA executive vice president, said: "This collective effort of livestock organizations and state and federal authorities is the first step in protecting the health of America's livestock industry. AAA is pleased to have the opportunity to assist livestock producers register their premises."

Just the week before, USDA announced a similar partnership with the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) to facilitate the registration of dairy farm, dairy calf and heifer grower premises as part of NAIS. NMPF is spearheading the effort of IDairy, a consortium of dairy cattle associations formed in 2005 to promote NAIS in the dairy industry.

It is estimated that more than 35,000 dairy producers have registered their premises under the NAIS, with another 35,000 commercial dairy farms and dairy calf and heifer grower operations to go, USDA says.

And in mid July, USDA announced a partnership with the U.S. Animal Identification Organization (USAIO) to register more than 100,000 new premises. The effort will revolve around educating livestock producers about the animal health and economic benefits of NAIS. USAIO is a nonprofit organization of livestock producer groups that works with the animal agriculture industry to provide leadership for the advancement of NAIS.

"I'm feeling like we've got some momentum of the right folks in the industry stepping forward saying, 'Let's make animal ID work and work well,'" Knight says.

All the focus on cattle isn't incidental. Knight says the cattle sector lags in premises registration, which is the underpinning of the voluntary traceability program USDA seeks to build. A critical goal for NAIS is to provide 48-hour traceability of livestock in event of an animal-health emergency.

"I think we're just about at 48-hour traceability for swine and poultry, and I'm seeing estimates that we're as close as 70% of the way there with sheep because of the scrapie program," Knight says. "The really tough thing at this point is to estimate how rapidly we can do traceback in a disease scenario for beef."

In fact, he says traceback is still ongoing on a bovine tuberculosis outbreak in a New Mexico dairy, a month after an outbreak there.

"I figure we're going to have to test nearly 40,000 cattle in New Mexico because of that outbreak. Under the current traceback program, if you don't know which animals in a herd have been exposed to disease, you must test the whole herd. With premises registration and individual animal ID, traceback becomes faster, not as many animals require testing, and ultimately fewer cattle have to be depopulated," Knight says.

Knight planned to address the issue via a "business plan" set for release this fall. The plan will lay out by species the steps and the timeline necessary to achieve 48-hour traceback in the event of a foreign animal disease outbreak.

"I'm trying to move this program to a very transparent platform, something USDA can see, something the public can see, including the folks that have been critical of animal ID. And perhaps as important as anything, I want industry leaders in each of the species to be able to see the business plan, react to it and know where they can fit in. Folks need to see where they can come together.

"The thing I've learned in the last several months is we really need to bring this program back to something that folks can identify with. I've talked with a lot of people about the economic impacts [of not having a traceback program]. We all know that it cost the U.S. $3 billion in market losses in one year alone following the discovery of BSE in Washington state.

From 2002 to the present, "we'll have spent $130 million in trying to eradicate TB. Almost no one is talking about the economics but that's something a lot of beef producers can equate to. These are the things that really impact the bottom line, that folks can identify with and say, 'Yeah, this is just a normal part of our disease programs.' "

Asked to grade USDA's premises-registration effort, Knight said he'd award a C+ for the effort of the past few years, but "a good solid B" for the first eight months of 2007. By the end of the Bush term in January 2009, he says, "I want to have the animal ID program to the point where it's recognized, accepted and embraced by a majority of the livestock producers in the U.S. That's an ambitious goal over the next 18 months but we're picking up momentum and I'm hopeful we can get it that far."

-- Joe Roybal