It's come to this… apparently and maybe.

The National Animal Identification System (NAIS) will become mandatory in early 2009 unless 100% of livestock premises — estimated at around 2 million by USDA — are registered, 100% of livestock born that year are registered, and movement data is recorded for at least 60% of the livestock in commerce that are less than one year of age.

That's the best I could interpret from an April 6 press conference, where USDA Secretary Mike Johanns unveiled the long-awaited NAIS Implementation Plan.

When Johanns failed to address the most obvious questions — if the program will be mandatory, and the cost to producers — there were plenty of wonderments.

The first question to Johanns was fairly straightforward: Is the program voluntary or mandatory? Johanns sidestepped it like a seasoned bullfighter.

When it was my turn, I took a different route, asking whether there was a particular level of industry participation required in order to maintain NAIS as a voluntary program. Johanns pitched it to John Clifford, APHIS Chief Veterinarian, who referred to the benchmarks above that no one else had been privy to. That, and the always definitive, “…we'll see where we are relative to the benchmarks at that time.”

But the implementation plan (http://animalid.aphis.usda.gov/nais), states that adopting mandatory regulations are a contingency plan for producer participation.

Industry support?

It's this kind of ongoing tonsil tap dance that is turning some of national ID's most ardent supporters into reluctant followers, or outright opponents.

Response to questions about the program's cost to producers was just as murky; the implementation plan doesn't mention cost anywhere. Johanns did point out, however, that “USDA has invested a rather substantial sum of money in the system to get it up and running…President Bush has been most supportive, even placing funds into his own budget.”

Last I knew, the only money USDA has is yours and mine in the form of tax revenue. So, about $85 million of tax money has been invested in NAIS so far, Johanns says. Depending on your vantage point, about $85 million has been squandered when, more than two years into the process, the only visible progress is 10% of all livestock premises registered. Well, that, and miles of red tape and canyon-wide industry divisiveness over the issue.

Sure, there's behind-the-scenes stuff producers know about, like development of a federal NAIS data repository that was shelved at the 12th hour, and a mountain of cooperative field trials and projects. If you'll remember, however, USDA said the results of these projects would guide NAIS implementation. Yet, Johanns announced the implementation plan while stating he'd recently requested a final report on the projects. No report, but “Houston, we have liftoff.”

The industry needs a standardized national ID system. Whether it's NAIS, or a system truer to the U.S. Animal Identification Plan that bore it. Industry favor for national ID was building until USDA began dragging its feet, double-tracking and squashing momentum flatter than a gutted flea.

In fact, Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) members recently tabled a meeting intended to consider regulations mandating premises registration in that state. At the time, TAHC executive director and state veterinarian Bob Hillman explained, “We're seeking from USDA clear direction on NAIS timelines for implementation.”

And, some Tennessee folks don't want anything to do with NAIS, period. A bill is floating around the Tennessee State House to make NAIS illegal.

Cow tags vs. moon walks

Rather than admit USDA foot dragging, Johanns said: “Nothing this large and complex has ever been attempted in the world.” Hopefully, he's speaking in the context of animal tracking, and not equating sticking a tag in a cow's ear with sending someone to the moon.

Of course, some would rightfully question how realistic USDA's current benchmarks are: 25% of all premises registered by January 2007 (more than twice the current total); 70% of all premises and 40% of all livestock entering commerce registered by Jan. 1, 2008.

If USDA sticks to this implementation plan, the nation and industry get at least one version of the ID system they need. But it apparently will come with having the cost shoved down producers' throats, be it voluntary or mandatory.

Then again, if USDA sticks to the plan, it would be the first thing about NAIS that ended up going the way they said it would.