Jim Akers sensed all along that markets, not mandates, would drive livestock ID. He just didn't know how fast it could all begin coming together.

And today, while the coordinator of the Southeastern Livestock Network (SLN) is amazed at what's been accomplished, he understands there's still much to do.

Less than 18 months ago, USDA appropriated $11.64 million to finance 29 state and tribal projects designed to test the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). The idea was to register livestock premises through animal ID “pilot projects” via a standardized system provided by USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

USDA's goal is to establish a national ID system to document — within 48 hours of discovery — all premises and animals with direct contact with a foreign animal disease or a domestic disease of concern.

Since August 2004, the pilot projects have been testing, with varying degrees of success, systems to track animal movement — integrating data collection technologies at ranches, livestock marketing facilities, feedyards and processing plants.

Changes in domestic and international beef trade dynamics, however, have caused many of the projects to integrate cattle-marketing options and opportunities while addressing disease-containment issues. Examples of multi-state pilot projects taking this dual-purpose approach are Akers' SLN, and the Boise, ID-based Northwest Pilot Project.

Southeastern Livestock Network

SLN consists of 10 states — Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Chairman Jim Anderson, a veterinarian and cow-calf producer in Brandon, MS, as well as vice chairman Marcus Harward, an auction market operator and cow-calf producer, Richfield, NC, lead the project. They say SLN is working to create a collaboration by all parties to be impacted by NAIS. These include producers, markets and marketers, educators, local Farm Bureaus, and state governments. The aim is to protect producer interests while meeting the needs of NAIS.

“As USDA devises the system for providing rapid traceability in the event of catastrophic disease, we'll be very active in the process and offer solutions we believe will minimize the burden on producers,” Anderson says. “We're convinced a joint industry-government approach is best.”

Although small herds dominate the region, SLN member-states represent 25% of U.S. cattle producers and 20% of the cow herd. This creates unique challenges.

“For example, we know smaller operations are heavily dependent on the auction-market system,” Akers says. “Therefore, a priority was to assure ID systems would protect the current marketing system and not disrupt the flow of cattle through auction markets.”

Last year, SLN initiated a demonstration project involving all 10 member-states to track harvest cows sold through regional auction markets. The option is for participants in the FPL Foods program to provide origin-verified cull cows and bulls.

FPL Foods LLC, headquartered in Augusta, GA, is an integrated beef plant that includes the Southeast's largest individual cow harvest facility. Any market, direct shipper or buyer sending animals to FPL is eligible to participate.

Producers certify the animal was born on their farm or the producer has possession of documentation that establishes the farm of birth and the date they acquired the animal. Producers and market operators are compensated for tagging animals, and the program offers educational programs at the market locations.

“This doesn't mean animals must originate on the seller's farm/ranch,” says John Stevenson, project coordinator, “but previous owners must complete an affidavit and provide premises information if the animals didn't originate on the seller's premises.”

Akers says he'd like to see the cow-tracking project expanded to other end-product participants.

While SLN's NAIS-related activities ended when funding ran out earlier this fall, the work continues via funding from the Kentucky Beef Network and participant user fees. SLN continues to play an active role in NAIS advancement via premises registration and information-management services.

The data services' centerpiece is an Internet database that provides source verification and market information services, as well as cow-calf records management data that range from birth to weaning to carcass data.

“The push is to get age- and source-verification data to feeders and packers,” Akers adds. “SLN provides a system for anyone marketing livestock in programs requiring source or age certification.”

SLN is modeled after the Kentucky Beef Network project that emphasizes:

  • A producer-owned and operated-database for storage of data necessary to satisfy producer and market compliance, as well as regulatory needs of the state and federal entities responsible for disease traceability in livestock.

  • The database will allow producers capabilities beyond basic compliance with NAIS, thus facilitating on-farm record keeping and expanded data availability to the producer.

  • The system will focus on “as they move through commerce” traceability, recognizing individual animal identity and matching those identities with a premises ID as the animals enter commerce.

  • The system will incorporate all electronic ID technologies as radio-frequency ID reader technology develops.

Akers expects that, by early next year, much “will fall into place” to create a clearer picture of the national ID effort. His contention has always been that markets will pull coordinated livestock ID efforts along, after government's initial push.

“It's beginning to hit home that there's value in ID,” Akers explains. “And the accountability that goes with ID has everyone doing a better job in getting beef into the marketplace.”

Producers are realizing there's more money in such cattle. He adds, “Our job is to help people realize those opportunities — and it's working.”

Northwest Pilot Project

At work in California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington, the Northwest Pilot Project (NWPP) seeks to develop, implement and test processes to allow the tracing of livestock through multiple livestock industry segments — across state and national borders.

Julie Morrison, Boise, ID, is NWPP coordinator. She calls this fall's marketing season “crunch time” for the project.

“This will be the first full marketing season we've been up and running,” she says. “The learning curve has been steep.”

There are currently about 23,000 head of NWPP-enrolled beef and dairy cattle, bison and sheep. Participants can choose from a variety of ID methods — brands, visual tags, electronic ID, etc. — or a combination — as well as from any vendor that meets basic USDA requirements.

“The idea is to track animals as they change premises and move through the chain,” Morrison says. “We're not dictating what technology to use — either hardware or software.”

NWPP offers incentive payments to participants each time a qualifying database entry is made for enrolled livestock. Each participant is limited to an enrollment of 200 head. So far, about 27,000 transactions have been recorded.

And, while the intent of the project is to test tracking feasibility for animal health, Morrison says the project's marketing aspects can't be held in check.

“We kind of have to walk a fine line,” she says. “The funds were appropriated to look at national animal-health security. But the reality is participants want to go further and find ways to use the system for a wide array of marketing objectives.”

Currently animal-movement data and premises numbers are housed in NWPP's temporary database. Morrison says the data will be moved later into a national database that meets USDA's required 48-hour traceability goal.

Rick Stott, Boise, ID, NWPP chairman, says a big frustration has been what happens past the ranch gate.

“A lack of infrastructure and communication in the industry's second tier — feedlots, auction yards and packing plants — is one of our biggest challenges in tracking NWPP animals from birth to death,” he says. “We feel NWPP can make a lasting contribution in our region by more directly engaging and assisting this industry level.”

Morrison says she'd like to see training for brand inspectors to support the collection and reporting of animal ID information. “We'll work with each state to develop an agreement for them, based on their interest level and state brand policies,” she says.

NWPP organizers also realize state ID programs — or regional programs, for that matter — can't work in a bubble. For example, Morrison is working with Montana Beef Network (MBN) representatives, inputting data in the system as Montana cattle move to NWPP states. And, she says NWPP has been exploring ways to use the database to track Canadian cattle imports.

Stott says, as NWPP continues into next spring, the focus will be on bringing the second-tier elements into the ID fold and making the system more user-friendly.

“Participants learn very quickly how to enter information into the database,” he says. “But, we have to make sure at every point what they enter makes sense and applies to their operation.”

Stott says he can't believe how far the national ID effort has come, especially considering the industry's size and segmentation.

“It's a testimonial to how people respond when there's a need to do what's right for themselves and the industry,” he says.