Animal identification isn't new. In ranching country, hot branding has been a system of choice for decades. Plastic eartags are also commonplace in livestock operations.

But according to a recent Integrated Resource Management (IRM) survey, more than half of producers don't individually identify their animals.

With growing concerns for source verification from calf to consumer, the beef industry is saying there has to be a better way. That better way may be in the form of electronic identification (EID), which offers capabilities to store and analyze production, genetic and carcass information in one computerized database.

Robert Kleemeier, president of I.D.ology, roughly parallels the current EID technology to the introduction of bar codes in grocery stores. Unlike visual identifiers such as brands, eartags and tattoos, electronic identifiers can be read and recorded faster and more accurately, and give instant, automatic and definite communication of data.

Moving Forward That instantaneous traceback capability has industry leaders eager to move forward with EID. Industry representatives from 40 states attended the National Farm Animal Identification Symposium in St. Louis, MO, in early November. Their one goal: to develop a plan to advance a national identification and record-keeping system.

The current industry approach to animal identification is inadequate and will impede our country's competitiveness in the global marketplace, Glenn Slack warned industry, manufacturers, integrators and government agency members. Slack is executive director of the Livestock Conservation Institute (LCI).

"Establishing an animal identification system and modernizing ID methods and technology must be a major priority for our industry the next 24 to 36 months," he insisted.

The meeting focused on global issues affecting trade, government requirements, disease control, animal ID and traceback, systems or models developed by other countries and updates on automated data collection technology.

"We need to measure yield, tenderness and performance of cattle in general, and we can do this with permanent individual animal ID," says Jimmie Wilson, Montana rancher and past president of NCBA.

Leading the U.S. effort is a pilot program called FAIR (National Farm Animal Identification and Records) which was started in 1996 by the Holstein Association USA, National Dairy Herd Improvement Association and National Association of Animal Breeders.

The program uses two Allflex tags, one visible and one electronic, to identify cows in the program. Pilot herds in New York, Pennsylvania, California and Wisconsin are being used to test the system. One livestock market and Taylor Packing in Pennsylvania have installed electronic readers.

"It unifies animal identification programs and links animal recording systems to provide accurate, complete and cost-effective information that meets the needs of the dairy industry," says Neil Hammerschmidt, Holstein Association USA program director.

"We're extremely well satisfied with how it's going," Hammerschmidt tells BEEF. "There's a tremendous desire by those working with the project to see that a system like this comes forward. I get the sense from industry players that we have to do this, and are glad somebody is taking the leadership in bringing it together."

Taking Action Using the FAIR program as an example, representatives of all classes of livestock at the recent LCI meeting proposed the following course: 1 - A national ID program should adopt the "American ID" numbering system established by the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding, says Bucky Gwartney of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA). This is a three-character country code (U.S.) allocated to each animal using both RFID (radio-frequency) transponders and visible plastic tags.

A RFID system has three components: * A transponder in the form of a tag, implant or bolus placed on or in the animal;

* An interrogator or reader that transmits a radio signal to activate the tag and record the information;

* A computer or other data processing system that stores ID codes and other data. The power source may be active (built in or connected to a battery power supply) or passive. Passive tags are smaller than active tags, less expensive and have longer reader range. They have no external power source, getting it from the reader.

2 - Form a private entity to allocate the American ID numbers and maintain records to ensure unique numbers are assigned across organizations that administer the program.

3 - Official methods of identification must meet standards set by the International Organization of Standardization (ISO). ISO is recognized as the worldwide, non-government federation of national standard bodies for 100 countries.

ISO has made significant progress in developing standards for transponder codes and EID reader specifications. Following ISO standards would help ensure uniform, compatible, cost-effective and successful adoption of this technology.

Currently, more than a dozen companies manufacture EID equipment, that are ISO compatible. Among beef cattle, the most widely used is the Allflex brand. The tag is manufactured by Texas Instruments and is used in MicroChemical's Accu Trac (tm) program; and Iowa Quality Beef program using AgInfoLink, the networking and information management system.

Allflex produces mostly plastic eartags, including those with the RFID microchip, selling in the $4-5 range. Vice President Glenn Fischer believes the price will drop to the $2 range under a widespread system involving a million or more tags.

Other U.S.-based companies include Y-Tex, Destron, AVID, I.D.ology, Cooper of Abbott, A.P.E.I.S and MagTrac. Foreign-based companies include Nedap/LMS, Inc., Holland; Earlmere I.D., United Kingdom; Diehl, Germany; Gemplus, France; Impro, South Africa; and Fujihira, Japan.

4 -Identification labels or "premise ID" numbers or codes should be assigned to individual ranches, feedlots, etc. Owner information, such as name of owner, address and telephone number, would be referenced in the premise identification.

5 - Both premise and individual animal ID numbers should be provided to the database. The animal's number would be the "key" to the system or database and, because of its uniqueness across the industry, provide the capability to link other industry databases. Premise ID numbers, which reflect location of a production unit, would be prefixed by a state code to ensure uniqueness throughout the U.S.

Other Countries Are Advancing While the "one-animal, one number" plan being promoted will not happen in the industry immediately, it will be a big step forward. Even with the new interest in EID programs, this country is still behind many others, says LCI's Slack. The worldwide trend is rapidly moving toward mandatory EID systems, despite vehement objections from factions in this country, he says.

Slack says many countries have far more advanced systems in place. For example, individual ID is already a reality in England. The Cattle Tracing System run by the British Cattle Movement Service was launched in September 1998. The system was put in place to isolate the mad cow disaster and requires birth-to-slaughter, individual-animal ID on all stock sold between states (see October 1998 BEEF, page 66). Starting Jan. 1, 2000, all fresh and frozen beef crossing borders will be labeled for its country of origin.

The European Union (EU) has plans to introduce an EID program before Dec. 31, 2000. The EU hopes to identify 1 million cattle, sheep and goats with one of three RFID (radio frequency) transponders. Every animal would have an ID tag attached no later than 20 days after birth.

France currently has one of the more complex identification programs. At the supermarket consumers can scan a barcode on the meat package and a computer brings up a photo of the producer and lists the breed, origin and history of the animal. (See an example at www. Soviba.com.)

Canada and Australia are currently conducting EID tag trials on cattle in the field and at packing plants. Australia has had a tail tagging ID system since the 1970s. It will be upgraded by the year 2000 to accommodate individual animal ID to form the new National Livestock Identification System.

Canada will implement voluntary trials with producers during 1999, but hopes to have their traceback system implemented by 2000.

After years of talking about EID, the industry is moving forward. The newly-launched Iowa Quality Beef (IQB) program, sponsored by the Iowa Cattlemen's Association (ICA), is one example of putting current technology into action.

The IQB program is an industry, university and association effort that aims to tie production, health and basic carcass data into one quick, easy and accurate package, explains Joel Brinkmeyer, ICA executive vice president.

The centerpiece of IQB is a network and management system called BeefLink that ties information for the IQB program together. It was developed by the company AgInfoLink, in Austin, TX, who's co-founder is Will Pape. Pape co-developed the VeriFone, the little black box used to read over 60% of the world's credit cards.

BeefLink utilizes an Allflex tag with a radio frequency (RFID) microchip that assigns a unique number to each animal. Currently, technicians can read the number with a hand-held scanner at chute side on the farm, auction market or packing plant. AgInfoLink is also developing a more durable reader ($1,000) that can be read at longer distances.

Once scanned, the number gives access to data stored on a laptop computer or to a central server located at the Iowa Beef Center on the ISU campus. While bugs still need to be worked out, data from programs like Cow Sense, CHAPS, Feedlot Monitoring and basic carcass information will be stored on each animal, based on his EID number. Confidentiality is assured, similar to individual credit card data, with only owners having access.

Several packers have agreed to coordinate basic carcass data including hot carcass weight, quality and yield grade and, in some cases, muscle scoring systems, says Brinkmeyer.

The goal is better cooperation through the system, yet maintaining individual ownership of assets, says ISU economist John Lawrence.

Pape explains how quality practices relate to the beef industry. "We rarely measure on an individual level or share data," he says. "The industry operates in a vacuum and there are no bridges to tell the cow/calf or seedstock producers what the retailer wants."

The goal, is to provide linkages between existing systems, protecting and leveraging investments producers have made. "The data is owned by the cattle owner who inputs the data. It can then be benchmarked and compared with other data in the system as the producer requests," Pape says.

Supplying quality practices on individual animals is a key to restoring consumer confidence, increasing revenues and decreasing costs, Pape adds. "The will to make it happen is all that is left. If you can't measure it, you can't manage it."

Future Acceptance Tags cost $5 each with free software that can be downloaded, Brinkmeyer says. To encourage participation, ICA has a 50% cost share funding for transponders, readers and laptop computers so cattlemen, veterinarians and beef alliances can get involved with the program more quickly.

Brinkmeyer sets the first year's goal at 50,000 cattle tagged, and says producers are ready to capture the added value a traceback system offers.

"Of Iowa cattlemen, 70% are ready to define long-term strategies of genetic selection and market programs designed to target markets in this new age of value-based marketing," Brinkmeyer says.

"We have tagged all Iowa Bull Test cattle, the Hawkeye Angus Bull Test and Iowa Simmental Steer Test," says IQB Director Mark Williams. "Some 3,000 Montana calves were tagged and are on feed in Northwest Iowa. We are also conducting meetings in Illinois, South Dakota and Kentucky."

In the quest for source verification and value-based marketing, the end goal will be premiums paid for quality that fits grids and specifications of certain alliances, according to ISU's Lawrence.

Among the first auction markets to participate in the program using the electronic ID system was the Bloomfield Livestock Market. There, nearly 4,000 calves sold in the Iowa-Missouri Beef Improvement Organization (IMBIO) sales this fall. About 1,000 carried the little round Allflex tag carrying the RFID transponder.

Owner Phil Schooley developed the sales so small-volume producers could get higher prices by pooling calves with similar health and management programs into half or full potloads.

Beef Quality Assurance program manager Eldon Hans says calf pooling often sends steers to two or three buyers and preconditioning information doesn't get passed with them. He believes that source verification through electronic ID can help eliminate some of those concerns and reward producers for those programs.

The IQB program isn't just for Iowans. Contact the Iowa Cattlemen's Association, Box 1490, Ames, IA 50014 or call 515/296-2266.