“Whether producers have one cow or thousands, each has a responsibility in national animal identification [ID] because every producer, no matter the size, has cattle with the potential to shut down markets across the nation,” says Gary Wilson. He's a New Concord, OH, producer and co-chairs the U.S. Animal Identification Plan (USAIP) Cattle Working Group.

That is the bottom line that Wilson and his group have returned to amid the frustrations and tough discussions that led first to development of USAIP and, most recently, to cattle-specific recommendations from the working group.

“At the end of the day, everyone has to focus on what we've been trying to accomplish from the outset. And, that is improving capabilities for animal disease surveillance and monitoring,” Wilson says.

Specifically, this target is the ability to accurately track any head of livestock with a foreign animal disease (FAD) or some other Class A malady back to every location it previously occupied, and do it within 48 hours.

Wilson reaffirmed that bottom-line goal when he presented the working group's much-anticipated report at last month's National Animal Identification Expo. USDA has indicated it wants reports from each species-specific working group before fleshing out particulars for its National Animal Identification System (NAIS).

Cattle Industry Suggestions

Ultimately, there's no way of knowing which parts of the USAIP, or which working group recommendations, USDA will incorporate into NAIS, though they have already adopted USAIP data standards. But, Wilson says, “I don't see USDA doing something drastically different than what the species working groups recommend. I believe it's their full intent to stay as close to the USAIP recommendations as they possibly can.”

If that's the case, then highlights of the Cattle Working Group report offer cattle producers a notion of what is in the offing, although the timetable is still firmly etched in fresh mud (see sidebar).

Cost Still Unknown

Wilson points out both cost and data management are sticky issues that could take a while to resolve.

“As a producer, my overall concern is still what this is going to cost me…The level of state and federal funding will greatly influence what we can support as producers. Given today's world, I believe producers are commited to support the plan. The question is, how committed are our Congressional leaders and the administration?” he says.

USDA received $18.8 million from the Commodity Credit Corporation to begin the first phase of NAIS, which is premises ID, this year. The cattle group recommends $73 million be appropriated for NAIS in 2005.

Meanwhile, a debate continues over whether data submitted by producers should be housed and managed by a central database, which likely would be under USDA's direction. Or, whether that database should be kept and managed by private companies that make the data available to USDA. Choosing between them revolves primarily around issues of confidentiality and cost.

If USDA managed a central database of NAIS information, Wilson says there's no way USDA currently can guarantee confidentiality because of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In fact, USDA reports that its legal counsel believes any information the agency accesses from private databases in the name of animal disease monitoring and surveillance might also be subject to FOIA. For that reason, a movement is afoot to introduce legislation that would exempt NAIS data submitted by producers from FOIA.

Even if data held in private databases were FOIA-proof without legislation, Wilson says some fear that, if government isn't holding the reins, it may find it easier to wiggle out of paying for any part of the system.

“I've characterized this process of building a national ID system as the good, the bad and the ugly. These issues are some of the uglies,” he says.

On the other end of the spectrum is the industry's recognition of the necessity and difficulty of tracking cattle on a timely basis. In fact, Wilson points out, “I've never had anyone say to me that national animal ID is a bad idea; they may express concerns about how it should be done. As long as we keep our focus on animal health monitoring and surveillance, I believe producers will support the system.”

Gearing Up For What's Likely

Assuming USDA remains fairly true to USAIP and the working group's recommendations, Wilson says there are only a couple of things he recommends producers do to get ready for NAIS.

First, producers must become familiar with the plan. He suggests using the USAIP for guidance (www.usaip.info).

Next, in preparation for the allocation of premises ID numbers that USDA says will begin later this summer, Wilson says, “If you have multiple operations, you need to sit down with your state vet and decide whether you should place all those operations under a single premises ID number, or whether you should have a separate premises ID number for each operation.”

At first blush, that may seem an inconsequential decision. But, say you've got multiple operations and a single premises ID number. If an FAD or Class A disease is traced back to you, the state veterinarian may have no choice but to quarantine all of the operations under that single premises ID number.

On the other hand, if you have distinctly different operations with separate premises ID numbers and can verify there's no commingling between operations, it's logical to assume some of those operations would not be quarantined.

“The first wave of our efforts will be to prevent foreign animal diseases from entering the country,” Wilson emphasizes. “But, if that prevention fails, how do we isolate the problem properly in a short period of time to contain it? That's what national animal ID is all about.”

The Future Of Animal ID

Here's what the Cattle Working Group recommends:

  • ID devices

    The working group recommends the use of ISO-compliant radio-frequency identification (ID) tags for the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). This runs counter to USDA's publicly stated intent to make NAIS “technologically neutral,” however.

  • Cattle movement

    This must be reported anytime cattle are moved interstate, change ownership, or are commingled with another producer's cattle. In other words, moving cattle from pasture to pasture on the same ranch (premises) or another ranch (different premises) you may be renting, would not require reporting or NAIS tags. However, move them to a neighbor's ranch (a different premises) and commingle your cattle with his for summer grazing, and the application of NAIS tags and movement reporting would be required.

  • Reporting responsibility

    This recommendation calls for premises receiving cattle to report the movement. That makes sense because sellers can't be expected to birddog what buyers do, never mind the fact sellers often are unaware who purchased their cattle through markets. However, in the case of private-treaty sales where no official marketing agent exists, the official reporting responsibilities by the receiving premises will be based on the honor system which may or may not meet everyone's needs. Therefore, with private-treaty sales, sellers are encouraged to report the movement too for their own liability protection in documenting the day their management responsibilities stopped.

  • Industry-wide participation

    To achieve the timely trace-back capability sought by NAIS, the working group believes every cattle producer must participate.

  • Cost sharing

    Since NAIS is being implemented to protect agriculture, one of the nation's critical infrastructures, the working group believes government should share in the cost of building and maintaining the system.

  • Data confidentiality

    The working group recommends complete confidentiality of the producer information reported as part of NAIS. This includes an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act and prohibiting access to the data by other government agencies.

All these are in addition to a premises ID system, which represents the initial phase of NAIS.