Michigan made history last month when it became the first state requiring electronic ID tags on all cattle moving off the farm in commerce. While fewer animals went to market in the first days of March than normal, state officials reported satisfaction with the compliance level of this newest step in the Michigan Bovine Tuberculosis (TB) Eradication Project.

Kevin Kirk, ID coordinator and special assistant to the state veterinarian, says his informal check of Michigan livestock markets after the first sale day of March indicated more than 95% of animals arriving at Michigan markets were sporting the required radio-frequency ID (RFID) tags in their left ears. An interim policy allows markets to tag untagged animals on arrival for a $6/head charge.

“I talked to four different markets that had sales yesterday — March 5 — and most had only 1-3 animals that needed to be tagged at the market out of a total of several hundred. That's a pretty good success story,” Kirk says. “We're on track to be the first state in the U.S. with a comprehensive, electronic, animal-health tracking system for cattle.”

Scott Acker, Michigan's senior regional manager for United Producers Inc. (UPI), says that among the 3,000 head of cattle that moved through UPI's St. Louis, Cass City and Manchester markets in the first six sales of March, fewer than 100 head arrived without the required “840” tag.

“The bulk of producers understand the importance of the program from an animal-health perspective, which is to regain our TB-free status,” Acker says. “We've had our readers in place for about a year and have conducted previous RFID sales, but the process is going better than we even expected.”

Monte Bordner, a seedstock Angus producer from Sturgis who has served as chairman of the state's TB Advisory Committee for five years and has been a member since the committee's inception in 1999, was also elated with the results. He sees the mandatory state program as critical in regaining market access lost as the result of TB that first hit the northeast corner of Michigan's Lower Peninsula in the late 1990s.

That and subsequent incidents in an 11-county infected zone, whose origin is believed to be TB-infected whitetail deer, have cost the state's producers more than $200 million in lost markets and producer-funded testing costs, he estimates. That's not to mention the $100 million in state and federal funds expended thus far in the eight-year eradication effort.

As of last summer, more than 18,000 Michigan herds and 1.2 million animals had been TB-tested, says Dan Buskirk, Michigan State University Extension beef specialist. All told, 40 cattle herds have been diagnosed with TB, all in the 11-county “Modified Accredited Zone”. (see “A state split by TB”). Of 3,889 cattle in those 40 herds, 97 have tested positive for TB by polymerase chain reaction, the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) reports.

“What really impacted us the most was the loss of our ability to sell our feeder calves out of state,” Buskirk says. The Upper Peninsula, which is separated from the Lower Peninsula by the Mackinac Straits with just a single bridge between them, has never had a TB case, he points out. Yet, those producers lost their traditional feeder-cattle market in Wisconsin when TB was discovered in the Lower Peninsula.

“Not only did TB immediately disrupt markets for those in the Modified Accredited Zone (infected zone), it also hurt producers in the Lower Peninsula counties — the Modified Accredited Advanced Zone — who also have never had a TB case and traditionally marketed a lot of cattle into Indiana,” Buskirk says.

Bordner, whose Bordner Angus Farms is located just three miles from the Indiana border and 30 miles from Ohio, can attest to Buskirk's appraisal. In the last eight years, Bordner says he's sold only three cattle into Indiana.

“Michigan has never had TB outside that 11-county infected zone, but folks 50 miles south of me think every Michigan herd has TB in it. It's been a struggle,” he says.

A switch to electronic

Individual animal ID isn't new in Michigan. Following the late-1990s discovery of TB in the state, MDA mandated that all cattle moving in the state carry official ID, effective October 2000. The official ID, however, was the USDA-supplied silver metal tag that carried an MI-34 prefix.

It was in November 2001 that MDA initiated an RFID pilot program in the infected zone to test its workability for tracking animal movement. The positive results spurred MDA in 2002 to require RFID in that zone, and in 2004 in the TB-Free Upper Peninsula.

It also helped that Michigan was picked as a pilot state for electronic ID, receiving a USDA grant of $1.3 million.

The statewide move to RFID tags, which took effect on March 1, happened via a rule change by MDA in January 2006 that designated an 840 RFID tag as the official form of ID. An 840 tag is part of the National Animal Identification System and requires premises registration in order to acquire it.

Buskirk says 17,323 livestock premises in Michigan had been registered as of March 5, and 651,578 units of the “840” tags had been sold. He estimates there are 29,011 livestock premises in the state, about 14,400 of them with cattle.

“Our best guess is that we have about 1 million head of cattle in Michigan. Animals don't have to be tagged unless they leave the farm, but there are currently enough tags out to cover 65% of the cattle right now,” Buskirk says.

The new RFID rule applies to any beef animal moving in commerce within the state. Metal tags are still allowed, however, on cattle being transported for processing for personal consumption, and out-of-state steers or spayed heifers intended for feeding and slaughter and not commingled with Michigan cattle.

Public-private collaboration

Needless to say, officials and producers are giddy with the level of producer buy-in on the concept. They chalk it up to state-private collaboration to educate the public about the need for such a program.

“It's met or exceeded my goals as far as acceptance of the program and I attribute much of the credit to the time and energy spent in communicating and educating producers about the importance of a mandatory RFID program” to the health of the industry, Kirk says.

A Michigan RFID Education Task Force was formed in April 2006 consisting of representatives of government, university, marketing and producer groups. Their objective was to develop, deliver and assess the impact of the educational effort to enhance adoption of RFID of cattle in Michigan.

The effort included scores of meetings with producers across the state, media visits, production of fact sheets, brochures and news releases, etc. They drove home the message that the improved traceability afforded by an electronic ID system could garner TB-free status for the 57 counties in the Lower Peninsula that aren't part of the 11-county Modified Accredited Zone, as now exists in the Northern Peninsula.

Michigan's electronic ID program is tied to the National Farm Animal Identification and Records (FAIR) program, maintained by the Holstein Association USA and USDA's Generic Database system. FAIR tracks livestock movement using two unique numbers: a livestock premises number and an animal number.

RFID readers installed at packing plants and livestock markets make it possible to track animals as they go from the farm through the marketing system. Funded by state and national grants, the readers have been installed in 15 Michigan livestock markets and seven large processors, six of them out of state.

“We feel this will be a very strong leverage point with USDA because we can document and track these animals quickly,” Bordner says. “I've had a few people complain to me that they'd have to catch their cattle to put the RFID tags in, but I told them: ‘Listen, if you're in the cattle business and you don't have a head gate, you have one too many cows. Just sell a cow and buy a head gate.’ This isn't rocket science. This is an eradication effort and it's a $2 commitment to get this thing fixed.”

A state split by TB

  • Bovine Tuberculosis-Free Zone — entire Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

  • Modified Accredited Zone (infected zone) — Northeast corner of the Lower Peninsula includes 11 counties and portions of two counties north of the southernmost boundaries of the Huron National Forest and the Au Able State Forest.

  • Modified Accredited Advanced Zone — 57 counties in the Lower Peninsula not in the Modified Accredited Zone.