Last month, both the U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA) and the National Assembly of State Livestock Health Officials approved a recommendation that national animal ID become mandatory for the U.S. cattle breeding herd. Spearheading the debate was Sam Holland, DVM, South Dakota state veterinarian.

Holland says a “breeding herd” (cows, bulls and bred heifers) traceability system could be implemented rapidly and with little upset to the U.S. beef cattle industry. He notes several states have such a system in place as they continue to officially identify all breeding animals as they're tested for brucellosis at each ownership change.

The word “mandatory,” of course, elicits a huge “gulp” among beef producers from coast to coast. But Holland says a serious disease outbreak in the U.S. could set the beef industry back decades, and the risks far outweigh the task of implementing such a system.

“We're becoming more vulnerable to catastrophic animal disease outbreaks,” Holland says. “As a state animal health official, I'd be less than responsible if I didn't go to the industry and suggest legislation be developed outlining a breeding herd ID program.”

BEEF asked Holland recently to flesh out his proposal for national cattle breeding herd traceability systems and his vision of a mandatory ID program.

BEEF: First, you say we need to draw a distinction between ID for livestock marketing purposes and ID for animal health reasons. Please explain this distinction and what it means for beef cattle producers.

Holland: They can be common ID systems, but each fills a different need. ID for health reasons protects the industry and prevents vulnerabilities that exist with regard to highly contagious cattle diseases like foot-and-mouth disease. We also need to protect our industry's vulnerability against recurrence of the more traditional diseases like tuberculosis (TB) and brucellosis.

Marketing ID, on the other hand, is for verifying production and processing methods for the marketplace and addressing management functions that will provide producers incentives in the form of premiums or avoiding discounts. This is an area where the private sector is far better equipped to implement animal ID. It's an area where government should have no regulatory role. And we're seeing it happen all around us as a growing number of producers participate in various programs to enhance the value of their feeder animals.

Ultimately we'll probably learn more about traceability from private industry as it meets the ID needs for marketing than we will from all the government programs. But they're both valuable tools that serve much different purposes. We're all guilty of blurring those differences and not realizing or communicating the distinctions.

BEEF: Speaking of distinctions, why start with a traceability system with the country's cattle “breeding herd” and not all livestock as originally proposed under the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) and its predecessor systems?

Holland: The original goal to ID all animals and be able to trace and track all animals at every point in the chain was a very noble one. But it was simply too overarching to enact at once; nor is the technology quite there today to accomplish this. Identifying the breeding animals would provide a segment of the industry we can get our arms around. Plus, it's our breeding herds we're most concerned about from a disease outbreak standpoint.

BEEF: How do you envision this ID system operating?

Holland: This system would track changes of ownership back from the point of surveillance that occurs at the slaughter plant. It's really not all that complicated. The data simply notes change of ownership ID, the seller and the buyer with their farm or ranch (premises) number at each change of ownership of breeding animals so they can be traced back.

BEEF: In some areas, hot-iron brands are still seen as the most practical means of livestock ID. Does your vision for a mandatory breeding herd ID system recognize brand-state ranchers' concerns that they already have traceability through brands?

Holland: I agree that through brand records we can do a reasonable job of tracking short-lived animals — feeder cattle — that are moved for the most part in groups. Same can be said for the non-brand states through market records, invoices and shipping records.

Brands are helpful even in the breeding herd, but a brand alone isn't individual and unique — something you really need if you're going to track an animal through multiple premises back from the slaughterhouse where it might be found to have a disease.

BEEF: Speaking of premises, we've not seen a lot of activity lately in premises registration. What's it going to take in the short run, outside of a mandatory system, to reach the goals set for voluntary premises registration?

Holland: In the short run, you're not going to see the benchmarks that have been set. Ideally a voluntary ID system would be desired. But for animal health alone, a voluntary system won't work. When it comes to disease management, state animal health authorities can't manage disease outbreaks unless everybody is playing by the same set of rules; and that isn't what will happen under a voluntary system of premises registration and national ID.

BEEF: Can the ownership and animal movement data contained in a national ID system be held securely?

Holland: First, I don't think it should be a concern — especially with the breeding herd. We've held similar data for disease management for years — TB and brucellosis — and no one has asked for that data who doesn't have a valid reason. Besides, it wouldn't be meaningful data if they did have access to it because it wouldn't reflect where cattle are located at any point in time.

But secondly, yes, it can be held securely in databases maintained by the state animal health agencies that share information as needed with USDA.

BEEF: Will the costs of what you're suggesting be shared between private industry and government?

Holland: It can be shared — and it doesn't have to be an unreasonable cost. If it were unreasonable, we wouldn't have been able to handle brucellosis and TB. Industry pays the cost of testing and field records, the state manages the databases and records the data fed from the field. USDA manages the sharing of that data with those state animal health officials who have a formal and specific reason to have access to it.

BEEF: Do the ID devices have to be based on high-tech electronic ID systems?

Holland: Not necessarily. The way the recommendation reads is “official identification” — that's means a breed registry tattoo, an official metal tag — which means a “bangs” tag or a silver alpha-numeric tag — or an electronic ear tag with an NAIS number. I would suggest that, as a nation if we started using the bangs and the silver tags, we could move to other electronic technology used for management and marketing as it develops and becomes proven. All we need is a unique number that can be attached to an address. This is all basic ID that's been used in the past by virtually everyone in the industry.

BEEF: How much clout does USAHA have with regard to these issues? And what's it going to take for your vision of a mandatory breeding herd ID program to become a reality?

Holland: USAHA is the oldest animal health organization in the country. The heart of the organization is the state animal health authorities. It's been a very effective organization that's worked with both the states and the federal government. It's going to take more than USAHA; it's also going to take the leading cattle industry organizations to outline how they see a system like this working.

BEEF: When would you guess a mandatory system like you're suggesting could be put into place?

Holland: First, I have a feeling this is going to be ignored unless industry associations or state animal health officials give us some meaningful direction on a uniform ID system. USDA certainly isn't going to do it without strong requests from industry and state agencies. But, it could be done rather quickly — 6-12 months nationwide — if the industry sees the need and wants to see it happen.