Many cattle producers still stand firmly opposed to mandatory, industry-wide cattle identification (ID). But some are changing the position of digging in their boot heels. They're allowing for compulsory ID of some cattle in the name of enhanced national animal disease surveillance and health monitoring.

“We divided ID for health monitoring purposes from the role ID plays in capturing production data and genetic improvement information,” says Gary Wilson, animal health committee chairman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA). He's explaining the approach that NCBA members adopted in February.

“We adopted a policy stating that NCBA will work with USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in identifying the type and frequency of ID required to enhance animal disease surveillance and monitoring in this country,” Wilson says.

Producers recognize the need for ID that can enhance animal health monitoring, Wilson says, particularly as successful disease eradication programs like that for brucellosis wind down. But it's been a struggle for cattlemen to reconcile the requirements and costs of that type of system with those of a program that allows for attaching all kinds of production and genetic selection information to individual ID numbers.

Information required for an ID system to enhance animal health surveillance likely requires minimal information, such as the source of origin tied to a unique ID. An ID system aimed at collecting production and genetic information for animal management, however, could require everything from birth date and weight to sire, maternal grandsire and so on.

If a mandatory system incorporating both health and management needs was adopted, opponents worry that missing or inaccurate non-health data could jeopardize the true health status and marketability of animals. In other words, if cattle are perfectly healthy but required production data is missing, would the system raise red flags and prevent producers from marketing cattle when they wanted? Never mind the question of who owns and controls the production data in such an integrated system.

Yet, some producers worry that waiting to develop an inclusive voluntary system could jeopardize the industry itself. They point to last year's global foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) catastrophe, agro-terrorism threats and the re-emergence of cattle tuberculosis in Michigan and Texas.

And, although there isn't yet a definitive value being paid industry-wide for source verification, there's no denying the heightened awareness among buyers and sellers of the ability to source verify.

“The sense of urgency is there like it has never been before,” says Allen Bright, chairman of NCBA's subcommittee for animal ID. “Restaurants and fast-food chains are saying more and more they want to be able to trace products all of the way back.”

Wilson points out, “Just because you put a tag in the ear or a chip under the skin to ID cattle doesn't make them healthy or the food safe. ID hasn't kept FMD out of this country; it's the other things we're doing.”

Rather than prevent the introduction of animal disease, Wilson says the ability to quickly track cattle can mitigate the effects of virulent diseases like FMD by accelerating response time.

“Individual animal ID isn't a system to identify a problem; it's to identify the source of a problem if one is found,” he says.

In Britain's FMD outbreak, tracking the source of infection took three weeks, which allowed the infection to spread, Wilson says. While USDA's records indicate an extraordinary ability to trace cattle back to sources even without any type of national standardized system, Wilson says a USDA epidemiologist tells him tracing cattle back today takes anywhere from two days to 12 weeks.

That's surely one reason animal ID in all livestock species has been ratcheting up USDA's priority list in recent years. In fact, in the name of enhancing the nation's animal health monitoring system, two years ago USDA strongly encouraged the industry to start developing a voluntary system, implying along the way that if the industry didn't come up with one, USDA might propose one.

John Clifford, acting deputy administrator of APHIS, says USDA is pleased with the actions taken by the industry since that time.

“With any type of national surveillance system, you have to be able to trace back to the source… In essence, what we want to see is a national strategy for animal ID that will identify the needs of federal and state regulations in a national approach,” says Clifford. “We've been working with industry and states very closely. We're hoping to have a program in place this year that identifies roles and responsibilities.”

Specifics are still a ways off, but Clifford says consensus is needed on issues such as a common numbering system. “There's no sense in creating a dual system that adds costs to the producer,” he says.

Indeed. Bright says, “There's a real danger to the industry that we'll add a cost without giving producers the chance to be paid for it, either because we don't know a value or because it becomes the new standard without which you can't even sell your cattle.”

Which cattle might be part of such a compulsory system? Clifford believes the top priority for ID is the U.S. breeding herd. Wilson also believes the highest-risk population is probably mature cows.

Market animals, most of which are harvested before 18 months of age, are inspected at the point of harvest, he points out. But cows can exist beyond the radar for their producing lifetimes. Ultimately, a compulsory system could be applied to all cattle in a specific category or a percentage of them that offers statistical assurance.

Either way, by decoupling the nation's cattle health surveillance needs from the requirements of producers who desire standardized ID for management purposes, Wilson says producers are positioned to help develop a health-based ID system, even a compulsory one, while letting the market drive voluntary ID for management reasons.

“We're in a place right now in the beef industry where it looks like beef cattle producers are poised in a positive way to ID cattle for their own benefit,” says Bright. When it comes to health, he explains producers can help direct the system that's developed. When it comes to ID for management purposes, he says producers are positioned to let the market choose which systems are adopted and when.

At the same time that NCBA members decoupled health-based ID from a management-based one, they adopted standards they recommended to the industry. These include such things as numbering systems, tag application and re-application protocol and data management ability. The standards account for both visual (hanging eartag) as well as electronic ID.

“The standards we recommended are broad and simple,” says Bright. “They seek to encourage different segments of the animal ID industry to have the ability to talk to one another, so that if I want to use one vendor's system and you want to use a different vendor's system, there's some compatibility between them.”

Even with the standards, Bright emphasizes, “We're at a crossroads where we as producers must ask what is driving animal ID. Is it being driven by companies trying to sell a product and businesses trying to create jobs? Or is it being driven by the needs of the industry? Will it better our individual operations and the industry as a whole?”

On a broader basis, Bright believes the development and adoption of ID systems for both health surveillance and management underscores the need for all cattle producers to be part of the process.

“It's our industry. If you want to control your destiny, you have to be involved,” he says. “Producers need to be involved and choose what this industry will become. By refusing to be involved, we choose to make the industry weaker.”