USDA's December announcement about the permanent voluntary status — on the federal level at least — of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) didn't signal the death of the program, Bruce Knight, USDA's under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs, tells BEEF. In fact, the program is alive and thriving, with the first of its goals — that of having 25% of all livestock premises in the U.S. registered in January 2007 — steaming towards its target.

Rather, he says, the announcement was an admission that the building of a national program for ID and traceback in the event of an animal health emergency could progress more quickly if livestock producers were drawn to it rather than pushed. The draw, of course, is the opportunity to partake in some of the premiums the market is offering practitioners of source- and age-verification, not to mention the payoff in genetic progress made possible by tracking individual animal performance.

By some accounts, premiums for age-verified cattle via private-industry programs, for instance, specifically for cattle 20 months of age and younger and eligible for export to Japan, have run $3-$4/cwt. on feeders and $2-$3/cwt. on fed cattle. Learn more by reading “Want Age With That?” on page 44 in the December 2006 issue of BEEF.

USDA's strategy appears to be working. Based on census data, USDA estimates there are 1,433,582 livestock premises in the U.S., and 343,186 registered as of Jan. 4. With a few weeks remaining in January, Knight remained confident he could deliver to USDA Secretary Mike Johanns the registration goal.

“The debate of mandatory vs. voluntary that was raging (regarding NAIS) when I stepped into this job was so wrapping everyone around the axle that no one was getting to the practical discussion that absolutely had to occur to make animal ID workable, practical and integrated with our existing herd health — and our existing commerce,” Knight says.

Of course, the original set of benchmarks also included having every animal identified by January 2008, and the movements of all animals in commerce tracked by January 2009. Knight says those goals haven't been abandoned.

“I haven't moved away from those objectives as far as having NAIS up and operational, but I tend to refer to it as a critical mass of participation by 2009,” he says. “Even under a mandatory system, you wouldn't get 100% premises registration, so we're shooting for that critical mass, and I'm still working with the professionals in the agency to really get a feel for what that would be by species. I think we can get there.”

Knight says the agency is working hard to find the synergies between animal ID and the marketplace, between NAIS and other herd health programs.

For instance, he says Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service personnel are studying the potential for a radio-frequency and NAIS-compatible bangs tag. His office is also meeting with representatives of brand states to determine how brand rolls can work together in a logical synergy with animal ID.

“I just can't emphasize enough that NAIS is at the producer's choice. We've separated the decision of premises registration from the next step of participation. I want to earn producers' trust, and it's up to them to move to the next step of participation to eventually putting individual animal ID or lot ID in place on their operation.”