As USDA's National Animal Identification System (NAIS) continues to evolve, many questions remain. To gain more insight, USDA announced $13.3 million for funding in fall 2004 for 29 state cooperative agreements to focus on premises ID, registration, and the review of various technologies and data collection methods.

“The pilot projects are intended to help us determine promising technology as well as creative methods to gather the data necessary for animal ID and tracking,” says John Wiemers, National Animal Identification director for USDA-APHIS.

The projects are funded for one year and most will have their final reports prepared this fall and winter. Here's a look at several:

  1. Texas-Oklahoma-Osage Nation

    Identifying one of the potential “bottleneck” points in NAIS, the Texas-Oklahoma-Osage Nation pilot project is working with auction markets on cattle ID methods.

    “That's probably the link that is going to be most critical to this process,” says Bob Hillman, Texas state veterinarian. “If we can make it work through livestock markets, we feel we can have a system that can effectively gather the data we need.”

    Texas is working with three auction markets, while Oklahoma is working with two. But Hillman says they hope to have participation from all segments of the industry — identifying animals on farms and ranches, moving them through the marketing system and tracking their movements.

    “The goal is to demonstrate whether we can have unidentified animals brought into a market, identify them, collect the data and then move that data to the data trustee, all at the speed of the marketplace,” he adds.

    To evaluate radio-frequency ID (RFID) tags and readers, some markets “may be more amenable to simple hand-held readers,” Hillman says. “Others will need multiple panel readers to effectively move animals through the system.”

    In Oklahoma, Vickie Ernsting, Oklahoma NAIS coordinator, says the feasibility of tagging calves as they come into the sale barn is being tested.

    “We want to figure the initial cost for a sale barn to tag cattle, as well as how quickly they're able to tag and track such cattle on sale day,” she says.

    Using RFID tags and readers provided by four companies, Ernsting says preconditioning facilities at the sale barns will be used to tag the cattle before they're dispatched to the sale.

    The eight-week project is scheduled for completion by Nov. 1.

    “I think it's important we get our projects on the ground, demonstrate what works and what doesn't, and find the glitches during the pilot projects,” Hillman says.
    Stephanie Veldman

  2. Kansas Animal Health Department

    Working with the trucking industry was “a logical place to start,” says Kansas State University's (KSU) Dale Blasi when asked about the concept for the Kansas Animal Health Department's pilot project. The study utilizes RFID to track animals.

    “RFID is a pinch-point technology, or a low-frequency technology, that allows you to read an animal with a pair of antennae opposite from one another anywhere between 30-40 in.,” Blasi says. “You have to situate your antennas in a logical location where animals are typically single file.”

    KSU beef specialist Mark Spire, DVM, says the project will look at the feasibility of reading RFID tags as animals are loaded and unloaded off trucks, and linking it to the premises ID information, and to a global-positioning-system mark on where the cattle are going.

    “That is important for disease surveillance purposes,” Spire says.

    The concept is so new, Blasi says there was no technology available to support it — so they created it. Teaming up with Osborne Industries and Digital Angel Corp., they developed the concept and built the test units. AgInfoLink is building an information management system to process the data once it's released from the trucks.

    The testing phase hasn't been without obstacles, though. Spire said fine-tuning the technology has been the biggest challenge.

    “When you put systems together from scratch, each component has to work. Even if you're 100% on five out of 10 items and 90% on the others, that brings you down to an 82% success rate. That isn't good enough for us,” he adds.

    All told, Spire says 30 trucks will be on the road in July during the course of the trial, working with cooperators from nine states. “Our goal is rather lofty — to have 20,000 head of cattle shipped through this system,” he adds.

    They'll work with National Beef to move fat cattle from the feedyard to the harvest facility. During the late summer and fall, Spire says a partnership with U.S. Premium Beef will allow them to move lighter calves from ranches to auction markets, stocker operations or directly to feedyards.
    Stephanie Veldman

  3. Tri-National Livestock Health and Identification Consortium

    One thing common to the participating jurisdictions of the Tri-National Livestock Health and Identification Consortium (TNIC) is brand laws. TNIC, which includes the states of Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, plus the Navajo and Hopi tribes and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe — and the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora, is using the existing brand inspection infrastructure required in these jurisdictions as a basic cog in tracking livestock movements.

    The USDA-funded project is being facilitated by RMS Research Management Systems USA, Fort Collins, CO. RMS is a private technology firm contributing software and database services for the effort, as well as data collection hardware to inspectors.

    “We call our system LivestockTrust Animal Identification and Tracking system. The name is indicative of the nature of the system we're experimenting with,” says Marty Goldberg, program manager and COO of RMS. “We're an independent third party holding the data in trust for producers. They own it and, in return for their participation, they agree to allow state and federal animal health officials to access it.”

    The overall TNIC project consists of five components: outreach; premises registration; electronic ID application to livestock; recording of GPS coordinates with livestock movement from farm of origin to livestock markets, change of ownership, feedlots and packing plants; and livestock traceability exercises.

    Premises registration is via the Internet. RMS and Colorado State University (CSU) personnel have conducted 33 town meetings across Colorado, and training of personnel in other jurisdictions is underway. RMS is also hosting an ID information and sharing Web site for the consortium.

    Goldberg projects about 50,000 head of livestock to be enrolled in the program by summer's end.

    “Our first-year priorities are education, outreach and premises registration. We have very specific animal tracking goals that are based not on numbers but identifying how things work and flow, and finding gaps in the system,” he says.

    Colorado has been the biggest success, thanks to the fact Colorado's 62 brand inspectors have embraced the concept “as a way to move brand inspection into the 21st century,” Goldberg says.

    Using portable electronic readers outfitted with Tracking Station software that ties the brand with the brand inspection certificate number with the ear tag, brand inspectors at private treaty sales collect the transfer data. Later, the data are uploaded by Internet to the regional database.

    To follow animals moving through sale barns, Goldberg says RMS will equip a handful of livestock markets with electronic alley readers to scan tags as animals pass.

    For the producer, the cost of the system is essentially just the cost of the electronic tag.

    “We've set this up in a way that the producer doesn't have to own a computer or a reader. The producer just buys the tag and puts it in his animal's ear. The level of data a producer wants to keep on his cattle beyond that is for him to decide,” Goldberg says.
    Joe Roybal

  4. Northwest Pilot Project

    The Northwest Pilot Project (NWPP) is a seven-state industry coalition of Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Utah and Nevada — www.northwestpilot.org. Administered by the Idaho Cattlemen's Association, chairman Rick Stott says the multi-year project is modeled on “real life,” following livestock from birth to harvest to learn how Northwest-style livestock raising and commerce fits the NAIS model.

    “We want to ensure any national ID program is as practical, reasonable and cost-effective as possible for livestock producers of the Northwest,” Stott says.

    Thus far, about 23,000 head of cattle, sheep and bison, and more than 10,400 animal events have been recorded, which represents signups of about 115 producers, he says. That's just off the pace for the program's first-year enrollment goal of 27,000 head of livestock by Oct. 31, when the current phase of the $350,000 project ends.

    NWPP allows participants a choice of ID form, says Julie Morrison, NWPP coordinator. About a third are using group ID by brand, another third visual ID, with the remainder — save for a few using retinal scanning — opting for electronic ID.

    “We're learning that our cow-calf producers, if they can do group lots with some flexibility, can get into the animal ID system easily, but it will still have some costs,” Stott says.

    “But the real deficit is at the second level — auction markets and feedlots. It will take thousands of dollars to get that infrastructure in place. We're finding much of the trouble in tracking cattle isn't in coming off the ranch but the second-tier level.”

    Stott and Morrison say Northwest production systems feature unique challenges with NAIS. “The need for flexibility is so key,” Morrison says.

    “We believe ID programs need to mirror the existing system of commerce, not vice versa,” she says. “For instance, it might make sense to use group lot ID in very some specific scenarios, such as large public lands grazing situations where the animals aren't handled much.

    “We've had cattle that have gone all the way to the packer in this program that started out as a group at the cow-calf level and then were individually tagged when they were commingled. By cross-referencing the group number to the individual tag number in our database, we were able to match these animals from birth to death,” she says.

    Absentee landowners are another issue. Many states require property owners to register livestock premises. In some cases, landowners aren't only absent but uninterested. Morrison says allowing lessees to register premises in such cases makes sense.

    Both Morrison and Stott report growing enthusiasm for the ID effort among producers and NWPP states.

    “Early on, producers joined the project because they wanted a say in developing the system that would be forced on them,” Morrison says. “Now, more enrollees are asking how they can take it to the next level to capitalize on the value of this in terms of capturing marketing and production data.”

    Stott says he's also seeing more cooperation among state governments. The definitions of premises and cattle movement, for example, are becoming more homogenous among the states.

    “In the West, some producers can open a gate and their cattle literally move from Idaho to Nevada. According to the definition, those animals have to be recorded,” Stott says. “The states recognize how impractical that is and are cooperating on such issues.”

    Stott says “the real compliance question” is how do we evolve the system?

    “We're finding it's not an overnight transition,” he says. “Our participants are very motivated and progressive.”

    Nonetheless, he points out, a “significant” number of animal events NWPP has recorded probably wouldn't be legitimate and traceable event recordings.

    “These are intelligent people with every best intention, but it will take a transition,” Stott says. “We're talking a gigantic software implementation and tremendous training and effort. There is a learning curve that has to happen across the entire industry.”
    Joe Roybal

  5. South-eastern Livestock Network

    How can local auction markets satisfy NAIS requirements? That's the purpose behind the Southeastern Livestock Network's (SLN) pilot project. A 10-state group that includes Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, executive director Jim Akers says a select group of auction markets are cooperating to electronically track animals' movements through the markets to the harvest facility.

    “We have an end-product partner at FPL Foods LLC in Augusta, GA, that installed multiple permanent readers,” Akers says. “Animals with tags are recorded, time and date stamped as they come off the trucks, and the data automatically reported to our SLN database where we complete the movement of those animals into the processing facility.”

    The first demonstration sale is set for mid July, with each state hosting sales through early September.

    “State animal health officials will be on site promoting premises ID registration,” Akers adds. “We'll attempt to recover all the data from the project by premises ID numbers. As most producers don't have premises ID numbers, we'll register them on site.”

    The project will only track slaughter cows, with most of them likely tagged at the sale barn. Akers expects 100-300 head at each auction.

    “This number will solidly demonstrate to folks we can read tags and not slow the sale down — collecting valuable data in the process,” he adds.
    Stephanie Veldman