Right now, about the only sure thing of the developing national livestock ID system is that there will definitely be one. But, there are some educated guesses that can be made about the program's format, the technology likely to be used and the key role veterinarians can play in the ID system's operation.

The proposed plan calls for standardized premises ID numbers to be established for all livestock operations, market facilities, assembly points, exhibitions and processing plants. Following that initial phase, the program will work its way toward individual animal ID.

Dale Blasi, Kansas State University (KSU) Extension beef specialist and a professor of animal science, says that for many veterinarians, it might be a “no-brainer” to provide some kind of ID service for their clients. Blasi is recognized as one of the nation's leaders in livestock ID systems — especially radio frequency ID (RFID) technology.

“There are a lot of questions out there about how a national cattle ID system will come together,” Blasi says. “But, this is a place where veterinarians can really shine. Vets need to be central to the national ID plan that their clients will be facing.”

A National Identification Dev-elopment Team made up of state animal health officials, livestock industry groups and the federal government has developed the comprehensive plan. Though it sounds more than a little ambitious at this point, the plan's originally proposed timeline called for individual ID of cattle, swine and small ruminants destined for interstate movement by February 2005.

Trusted professionals

Blasi likens a client's veterinarian to his or her accountant when it comes to maintaining animal health records — a data “layer” that can be added to an animal's ID.

“A rancher's veterinarian, like an accountant, can help gather, organize, analyze and store the ‘paper trail’ of every animal on an operation,” Blasi explains. “And, a vet can help use that data to answer questions about the history of an animal.”

Bob Bohlender, DVM, North Platte, NE, believes a national ID plan would fit hand-in-glove with many vets' practices.

“Who in a community could be a better source of an ID service than the local veterinarian?” Bohlender asks. “They're the logical people to serve as a focal point for producers who can't afford to, or don't want to, buy the necessary ID hardware and develop and maintain their own databases.”

This kind of service may not fit every practitioner, and each one who chooses to develop an ID service for clients will have a different system, Blasi adds.

“But, if the national ID plan goes along as planned, the veterinarian will be able to plug a client's premise number into the national system, while the data on the animal stays behind,” he says.

This “privacy” issue is very important to producers, and Bill Mies, director of supply-chain management for eMerge Interactive, says that makes the local veterinarian an even more likely candidate to help producers with their databases.

“These are the people a livestock producer trusts as much as anyone he or she does business with,” Mies says. “That old client/veterinarian relationship that hinges on confidentiality makes an ID partnership a natural fit.”

Going a step further

For larger ranchers and feeders with their own specialized computer software and employees, integrating an ID system into the overall operation through that kind of partnership might not be a good fit, Bohlender says. But, depending on how interested a veterinarian is in working with a producer, he or she might use the ability to generate individual animal performance data to take their animal health services a step further.

“They could use the data in all kinds of research scenarios, along with documenting things like beef quality assurance programs,” he says. “Veterinarians serving larger operators could conduct on-site trials for a variety of health treatments to help solve health problems down the road.”

The goal of a national ID system is to facilitate traceback of all livestock within a 48-hour timeframe to premise of origin. “Livestock” includes beef and dairy cattle, bison, horses, swine, sheep, goats, alpacas, llamas, deer, elk, poultry and aquaculture production.

For smaller producers of most livestock species — or those who are “itinerant” producers — it's logical that their local vet could provide some ID services that producers might not be able to generate on their own. There might be a step even further for the vet — and the data he or she might have on hand via an ID service. Certainly for the smaller producer, Blasi sees the veterinarian possibly acting as a marketing facilitator for clientele in his or her practice.

“They might act as a kind of marketing coordinator, putting groups of animals together and creating some buying co-ops,” he says. “Beyond that, they might use their power of numbers in buying bulls and sharing genetics. This might be an acceleration of the veterinary medicine profession.”

Blasi says he hasn't seen any resistance among veterinarians to the ID issue as a whole. But, he sees ID as another technology that vets will have to become familiar with. He and many others predict that RFID will evolve into the ID technology of choice for most livestock operators.

“In the context of a national ID plan, RFID is definitely the way to go,” he says. “Nothing is going to be perfect, and the costs are being driven down to where RFID is becoming very affordable.”

Nonetheless, like almost any technology, the investment advantage lies with economies of scale. Larger operations can spread the cost of equipment and service across more units.

In fact, Blasi and KSU ag economist Kevin Dhuyvetter have developed a Web-based spreadsheet that can be used to calculate RFID costs. It's available free at www.beefstockerusa.org, a cooperative venture between KSU and BEEF magazine. The spreadsheet allows producers to input their own RFID costs or considerations to quickly determine an estimate the annual cost of an RFID system on a per-head basis.

Mies adds that it's likely the larger cow-calf producers and feedlot managers will find all types of commercial ID systems available at a price that won't break the bank.

“But, for those producers who want help from ‘front-line’ professionals who can provide solutions to their ID-related challenges, technical assistance could be close at hand — and it might very well come from your local veterinarians,” he says.

To learn more about the national animal ID issue and RFID technology, go to www.beef-mag.com. In the drop-down menu from the “Browse Back Issues” box at the top right of the opening page, select “Dec. 1, 2003.” That entire issue of BEEF was devoted to the RFID issue.