Folks still chuckle over the old story about the rancher showing his unwitting banker the same set of cows — repeatedly moved from one location to another by an accomplice — to prove he still possessed the stated collateral.

It's tough to laugh though, when questions about ownership, or which cattle are which, leave you holding the bag because of lost or switched ear tags, paper trails subject to human error, or intentional fraud.

That's why the foolproof nature of biometric livestock ID is being used more frequently today.

“A biometric identifier is any identifier that can be measured on the animal rather than something attached to the animal (or injected),” explains Bruce Golden, CEO of Optibrand, a pioneer in using digital images of an animal's Retinal Vascular Pattern (RVP) for animal ID.

In humans, fingerprints and facial recognition are biometric examples, though Golden explains the accuracy of these lag behind DNA or iris and RVP images for human identification.

For livestock, the most prominent biometric identifiers are nose prints, DNA and RVP.

Of these, RVP has emerged as the cost-effective choice that provides the most information at the speed of commerce. RVPs are unique between animals, unchanging and can be scanned from birth until a few hours after an animal dies.

Cheap, fast and accurate

Nose prints are typically used to ID junior show animals. They work but it's hard to achieve consistent accuracy with them. In fact, according to Purdue University research, RVP is significantly more accurate. That's one reason Indiana, Mississippi and New Mexico adopted, or are in the process of adopting, RVP to identify junior show entries.

Although DNA can be used to record and match identity, the cost and estimated six-to-20 hours of lab time required makes it impractical for quickly identifying large numbers of cattle.

Calvin Gunter, director of corporate development for Bovigen (a genomics company), explains, “DNA isn't a real-time technology. Rather, for animal ID, it's a verification tool that can be used cost-effectively to audit the effectiveness of a mainline ID system.”

DNA's advantage is that, because it's inherited, investigators can match a calf to parents through comparison, or vice versa. And a wide range of samples can be used for analysis — everything from blood, to hair to muscle tissue. Also there's a plethora of diagnostic tests that can be run with the same sample to evaluate specific genotypic and phenotypic attributes.

RVP — the pattern of blood vessels at the back of the eye — does one thing quickly and accurately: it permanently IDs a single animal. Using the Optibrand system as an example, a digital image of an animal's RVP is recorded. This image is tied to a time and date stamp, as well as to GPS coordinates of where the image was recorded. Depending on volume, it costs clients 50-75¢/head for scanning and recording at Optibrand. The company's tamper-proof collection and encrypted data system abrogate fraud potential.

Improving current systems

Even in New Mexico, a dyed-in-the-wool brand state, animal health officials are using RVP and DNA to build upon the effectiveness of their brand program.

“Brands work. The old system of Bangs and TB tags works,” says Dave Fly, New Mexico state veterinarian. “From a state standpoint, however, we need to look at all available technology and understand how it can fit within our program so we can deal with it if producers decide to use the technology.”

He describes a recently initiated project by which recreational steers crossing the border from Mexico are being RVP-scanned, branded and recorded. These are cattle used primarily for roping and dogging; their transient nature on both sides of the border makes them higher risk.

In a trial run, Fly says the total process took about 2-min./head, compared to about 30 seconds when they were only branding the cattle. In a feedlot processing situation, Golden says there's no added time.

“But you've absolutely identified every calf on this side of the border,” Fly says. “It's unalterable and unobtrusive. The equipment and machinery is there to ID animals reliably at a reasonable cost.” He emphasizes the program isn't aimed at all cattle coming from Mexico, just the higher-risk steers.

New Mexico officials are also using RVP and DNA to record the identity of buffalo being reestablished by Native Americans in the state.

But Fly reiterates the state is using new ID technologies for specific needs. He says, by and large, the brand laws in effect for more than 100 years in New Mexico still provide effective animal ID and the ability to track cattle registered within the state.

By the way, he poses a question that may be tougher to answer than you first think. Is a brand a biometric? Brands are certainly part of an animal until its hide comes off. And it's tough to pull a fast one on an experienced brand inspector by altering a brand. But there can still be question marks in such situations if the accompanying paperwork appears to be in order.

Using RVP

Golden says other states are currently using RVP to record and monitor animals in quarantine herds. And one of the largest U.S. packers is using RVP to ensure identity for international customers.

Closer to the ranch, Golden says producers representing about 350,000 cows are currently using the firm's data management services and software, some also utilizing RVP for ID.

Incidentally, Golden explains, RVP is accepted in USDA's Draft Plan for the National Animal Identification System as equivalent to radio-frequency ID (RFID) and as a means to recover lost ID.

Internationally, most of Optibrand's clients and prospects are interested in the fraud-prevention aspect of certain identification.

In fact, Russian officials called Golden after receiving a shipment of cows and heifers from another country (not the U.S.). Tags were missing, and cattle didn't match the description or the buyer's memory. With no way to prove the cattle were different than those purchased, the Russians are considering RVP so it doesn't happen again.

Further west, Golden says tag-switching and subsidy fraud are routine in Europe. Animal health officials in Northern Ireland (NI) have visited with him about using RVP to stem losses of $370,000 (2004-2005) attributed to subsidy fraud. According to NI's Department of Ag and Rural Development, more than half of those subsidy fraud cases were related to cattle.

“Without biometric ID you can't prove that switching tags has occurred,” Golden says.

Similarly, officials in Alberta are using RVP in a study evaluating its use in tandem with dentition to reestablish the trade of dairy heifers with the U.S.

Still others just want a more reliable ID system. Optibrand recently bid on a national ID system for Botswana, which is seeking to replace a failed system based on electronic boluses.

None of this is to suggest biometrics in general, or RVP in particular, are silver bullets for every situation demanding animal ID.

“We don't advocate using retinal imaging on every head of cattle going through an auction barn, just as we don't advocate using RFID tags on every head. Every situation is different,” Golden says. “If you look at ID issues around the world, the traditional thinking is based on tag-based programs where livestock are tagged to ID them for the purpose of collecting performance data to make management decisions.”

Instead, Golden and his crew are focusing on the forensic applications of animal ID. That is, using identity to verify compliance with regulations or civil contracts.

An example of the former would be identifying with certainty the movement of cattle in and out of a herd quarantined for animal health purposes. An example of the latter would be proving cattle associated with an export shipment were the same ones chosen.

“Tags have real limitations in their forensic power — providing evidence that supports federal regulations and civil contracts,” Golden says. “Retinal imaging strengthens the ability to support forensic applications.”

Moreover, Golden explains, “The stronger the forensic value of a biometric identifier, the more power it has in supporting compliance with regulatory or contractual requirements.” In the case of RVP, there's no wiggle room when it comes to an animal's identity.

As such, Golden admits there's a downside to the technology, at least for those trained in creative arithmetic. “If you want to defraud someone, you don't want to use biometrics,” he says.