These days, John Paterson's job centers on helping ranchers dovetail the mandates of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) with the practicalities of running their operations. That's why he cringes when asked how ID will work between the various beef production segments.

Paterson, a Montana State University Extension (MSU) beef specialist and director of the Montana Beef Network (MBN), knows the government is asking a lot of the industry. Yet, pointing to the work of his MBN crew, he believes the industry is on a fast track in addressing the logistical and technical issues related to traceback mandates.

Paterson says three MBN studies conducted this year produced interesting and useful results that will help producers with the ins and outs of traceback systems. Bottom line is that applying tags at home will be the easy part for most cattle ranchers.

“They've been putting eartags in cattle for decades. In reality, the RFID tags are no different from any other tag,” he says. “The first obstacle for most will be when the cattle go through a stockyard or sale facility.”

On the road again

Therefore, the MBN crew took to the road tracking calves from a local ranch through an area auction market. They found:

  • It's possible to scan electronic eartags while animals are moving.

  • Handheld, wand-type scanners work better than other scanners.

  • Metal fences can interfere with the signal from some scanners.

  • Cattle can be tracked with 90% accuracy from a ranch in one state to a pasture in another state, to a feedlot in a third.

In the first study, Andy Kellom, MBN field representative, divided the calves into four groups. He tagged three groups at the owner's ranch and one at the Montana Livestock Company in Ramsey. Each tag contained a unique 15-digit number using RFID technology.

“We figured the auction market would be one of the hardest places to track an animal,” Kellom says. “We were right.”

Two types of scanners were used. One was a portable handheld wand waved past the calves' RFID tags. The other, which looked like an airport security checkpoint, was built into a portable alley. As the calves walked through it, the scanner automatically “read” the RFID tags, and numbers from both scanners were transferred into a computer.

“The metal fences at the auction market interfered with the stationary alley scanners,” Kellom says. “As a result, the stationary scanner read only 60% of the tags.”

The portable wands, on the other hand, read every eartag, he reports. But the calves had to be moved down the alley more slowly.

Kellom speculates doorway scanners might work better if part of a permanent structure at the auction facility rather than as a portable device.

From stop to stop…

In the second study, Ryan Clark tracked 500 steers from Melville, MT, to a wheat pasture in Cherokee, OK, to a feedlot in Ainsworth, NE. An MBN field representative, Clark scanned the steers with a wand when they got off the truck in Oklahoma. The wand worked every time.

The calves were then mixed with other cattle in a pasture. Six months later, they went to a feedlot and were again scanned with a wand. This time, the read rate was 96%.

From there, 450 steers went to a Nebraska feedlot before being harvested. The other 50 were sold and split up, the data lost.

Clark knows these kinds of numbers won't cut the mustard for most producers. But, he was encouraged by what worked, and plans to use what he learned in future MBN projects.

“It's possible to track them from stop to stop to stop, but there will be issues like lost tags, tags that won't scan, and calves sold through the auction market and split up that will be lost in the system,” Clark says.

In the third project, Kellom traced Idaho-born calves shipped to Montana, then returned to Idaho before being shipped to a feedlot and packing plant in the Midwest. The calves were tagged in Montana and scanned when they returned to Idaho.

Accuracy was 99% for the wands and 83% for the portable alley scanners. The alley scanners performed better in this study because the corrals were wooden instead of metal, Kellom explains.

He notes multiple scanners were used as calves exited the truck.

“The radio frequencies interfered with each other,” he says. “One solution might be scanners built into plastic panels.” Attached to wooden fences, the panels could read ear tags as the calves walked by them, he adds.

Paterson says MBN has other projects underway and planned. One longer-term project will compare three different companies' tags to determine retention rates and readability after several years. The study will involve about 3,000 cows.

Can't we just brand 'em?

Paterson says the first question ranchers ask is where branding fits into an ID program.

“Many wonder why they must switch from branding to a new ID system that involves ear tags, electronic readers and computers,” he says. “They already have a way to ID animals that's worked for 150 years.”

No question, branding is here to stay and has a place for what it's intended — deterring and tracking animal theft.

Paterson says branding works well when Montana-born cattle stay in Montana, but not as well when they cross state lines for finishing. He also points out that branding is a “group-lot” method of ID — and may not meet individual ID mandates.

“You certainly can do it, but it becomes much more difficult, especially when USDA has suggested a 48-hour traceback,” Paterson says. “We're suggesting brand documents also carry premises ID numbers.”

Montana is one of 13 states with brand laws and departments, Kellom says. “So, what happens when Montana calves go to Iowa, where there are no brand laws, inspectors or infrastructure to support it?” he asks.

And, what if the same feedlot is buying cattle from Colorado with the same brand, and commingling them in the feeding pens?

Paterson says ranchers are also asking him which eartags and scanners to buy. He's working on eartags first.

Paterson's crew has found a 0.4% failure rate in either lost or unreadable EID tags. Conventional plastic eartag loss in that experiment was 4%, or 10 times higher,” he reports.

Another experiment will compare readability of EID tags when the outside temperature is from 0-60° F. They'll also find out how close to the EID tag a rancher must be to read tags in different conditions.

Besides being concerned about branding, ranchers are skeptical about record confidentiality.

The MBN crew is investigating the use of pre-scanned eartags and storing data in a private database, which should provide the confidentiality producers are demanding. This approach also means cow-calf producers wouldn't have to invest in new or expensive computer hardware.

Ranchers also wonder if NAIS will provide them carcass characteristics and feedlot performance data if they want it.

The short answer is “no.” NAIS is only for disease traceback, which st arts at the ranch and ends at delivery of the cattle to the packing plant, Paterson explains.

“Many of our producers know how good their calves are because they have 2-4 years of carcass data,” he says. “I'm amazed how many individuals and companies are now calling the MBN wanting to know where these cattle are located. I'm proud of how we helped ranchers add value to their calves this fall through the individual animal ID programs.”

Evelyn Boswell, Montana State University News Service, contributed to this article.

Guiding principles

USDA's four guiding principles for the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) are:

  • The system must be able to allow tracking of animals from point of origin to processing within 48 hours, without unnecessary burden to producers and other stakeholders.

  • The system's architecture must be developed without unduly increasing government's size and role.

  • The system must be flexible enough to utilize existing technologies and incorporate new ID technologies as they're developed.

  • Animal-movement data should be maintained in a private system that can be readily accessed when needed by state and federal animal health authorities.

Last May, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns said NAIS would integrated three key components — premises ID, animal ID and animal tracking.

“It will allow state and federal animal health officials to manage disease surveillance and control programs more effectively and efficiently,” he said. “In the end, the system will help limit the scope of dangerous outbreaks and ensure we're committed, and that we can contain and eradicate as quickly as possible.”

Livestock premises ID is foundation of NAIS and must be established before animals can be tracked.

USDA will require the following pieces of information about registered premises: premises ID number, name of the entity, appropriate contact person, street address/city/state/zip code, contact phone number, operation type, the date the premises number was activated, the date the premises number was deactivated, and the reason for deactivation.

State or tribal animal health authorities will receive this data or have access to it through their premises registration systems. USDA will store the data in the national premises information repository.