CalfAid is North Dakota's entry into the nationwide scramble to flesh out a workable system for livestock ID and traceability. It's a project born out of biosecurity that's evolved into identifying cattle, recording data and introducing livestock traceability functions.

Managed by North Dakota State University's (NDSU) Dickinson Research and Extension Center (DREC), CalfAid centers around a custom tagging operation that doubles as a demonstration in biosecurity and disaster containment.

“We've been evaluating the processes of managing livestock biosecurity and the electronic-based tracking of cattle for a couple of years now,” says Garry Ottmar, DREC ranch manager and CalfAid team foreman. “By the end of this year we'll have nearly 10,000 head tagged.”

The goal is to develop and demonstrate a dual-purpose protocol that producers can use to track and manage cattle from birth to death. In North Dakota at least, the early prognosis is that traceability is a work in progress.

High hopes fizzled fast

Jim and Darlene Swenson of Beulah were among the first ranchers to try CalfAid. While they give what began at the ranch decent marks, their hopes for traceability and feedback fizzled fast.

“We went to the expense of having the CalfAid crew come out and ID our cattle,” Jim explains. “But, as it turned out, it was a waste of time because the feedlot didn't read the electronic tags.”

He remains supportive of the idea behind traceability based on electronic ID (EID) and understands it's going to be part of his ranching future. For now though, he's on the sidelines anxious to get into the game.

“The only way full-blown traceability is going to work is when everyone's working off the same set of rules,” Jim says. “But, we want to know if we're doing things right, or if there's a problem with our calves.”

Darlene keeps impeccable production records on their 500+ cows — all in a highly organized notebook.

“I'm not ready to give that up for something I'm not comfortable with,” she says, “I certainly won't give it up for a system that costs us more money and doesn't give anything back.”

The Swensons' frustrations are echoed by Bernel and Elayne Appledoorn who ranch near Gladstone. They also signed up with CalfAid and used the EID eartags. In the end, the cattle feeder simply didn't use the tags — and told the Appledoorns that once the calves hit the kill floor the packer would charge $5/head just to read the tags.

“We got involved with CalfAid because we know traceback is coming and we have to get our feet wet at some point.” Bernel says. “The DREC crew is working hard to show us how to get started, but for now we see it as kind of a dead-end road.”

The Appledoorns currently use the Cow Herd Appraisal Performance Software (CHAPS) programs to track their herd's performance. With EID technology they're looking forward to when they can follow their cattle all the way to the packing plant — and get performance data in return.

“But, until the industry comes together with a system tying it all together, for us at least, it's a waste of time and money,” Elayne says. “We didn't EID our calves this spring — but we might EID some this fall.”

Connecting the dots

“The cattle industry simply isn't ready for the implementation of a national animal ID system,” acknowledges Kris Ringwall, NDSU Extension beef specialist and DREC director. “We have some concerns we're trying to work though with the help of our cooperating producers.”

He admits the immediate challenge is a lack of consensus among contributing players in the EID business. The result for many ranchers is that, as witnessed by the Swensons and Appledoorns, EID tags are often ignored or cut out and replaced with another tag by the next owner.

“There seems to be little regard for the stakeholders involved,” Ringwall explains. “That and the complexity of sorting through the multitude of commercial players and networks literally can bring one to tears.”

The second challenge is the lack of a defined acceptable level for transponder performance.

“Even if the EID tags do meet the true ISO specifications,” Ringwall continues, “there's no guarantee today's tags can be read with any definite level of reliability.”

Mick Riesinger, Dickinson, NDSU livestock biosecurity specialist, says successful tracking of individual animals will require the implementation of additional technology systems (see below) and plenty of education throughout the industry.

“Part of our job is to evaluate the current state of tracking equipment in the face of mandatory ID,” Riesinger points out. “We're also working to develop systems that will help ranchers gain a market advantage while assuring consumers they're getting high-quality, safe food.”

And, as the Swensons and Apple-doorns can attest, the CalfAid project continues to stretch the imagination of its partners.

“No question this technology is moving fast,” Bernel Appledoorn says. “It won't be long before it'll all wash out and we'll have EID systems we can put to work.”

Jim Swenson likens his investment in EID to “paying dues” and also believes the day will come when EID systems can be used to connect all the dots.

“We'll be ready,” Jim says. “This business is our life. If traceability and EID is something that's needed for the future of our beef industry, then I want to be a part of it every step of the way.”