Some thought country-of-origin labeling (COOL) would spur the adoption of individual animal ID in the beef cattle business.

Depending on how you read the amended law, and what is likely to take place if it's passed, diluted COOL requirements represent nothing more than an extra speed bump. It's a speed bump that means and accomplishes nothing, but creates confusion and added cost along the way.

Others were sure the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) would jump-start industry adoption of a standardized plan that would provide the means to quickly and accurately contain animal disease. As you know, industry infighting, political gamesmanship and USDA ineptitude have made NAIS a shambles so far.

Altering producer apathy

Presumably, USDA's NAIS business plan, purportedly coming out early next year, is supposed to alter producer apathy about the program. However, unless it changes dramatically from the draft version made available at the recent annual meeting of the U.S. Animal Health Association in October, NAIS will remain long on questions, short on answers and devoid of incentives to participate.

Ironically, now that producer interest in NAIS is less robust than a paper pig in a barbeque pit, the draft business plan does at least provide the semblance of an implementation plan. That's something that's been missing since the U.S. Animal ID Program that preceded NAIS.

You can argue whether identifying 70% of the beef breeding herd would represent an effective critical mass, as the business plan suggests. You can certainly take exception to another apparent USDA flip-flop on the voluntary/mandatory question, with the draft plan calling to require NAIS premises registration and NAIS ear tags for bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis testing. You can quibble over other specifics outlined in the business plan, but at least there are finally some specifics to discuss.

When it comes to protecting the nation's cowherd, NAIS — or some other national, standardized program — continues to matter more than anyone hopes to ever know.

For example, a study published by Ted Schroeder and Dustin Pendell, agricultural economists at Kansas State University (KSU) and Colorado State University, respectively, models the economic impact of a virulent animal disease like foot-and-mouth (FMD). According to the study, “When demand was held constant, producers from the beef industry had declines in welfare, which ranged from $226.34 million with low-level ID to $96.96 million with high-level ID. Allowing demand to change for beef, pork and poultry, producer surplus declined by $583.91 million and $405 million for low- and high-level trace back systems, respectively.”

In other words, that's what producers could expect to lose industry-wide if FMD cropped up at a single 40,000-head feedyard, depending on how much or how little effective animal traceability the industry had in place. This oversimplifies a complex study available at the North American Institute for Beef Economic Research (www.naiber.com), but you get the idea.

When it comes to how some producers already use ID-based management to save and make money, NAIS matters less than flea sweat.

A competitive advantage

More folks are using ID more often to derive additional benefit. So, ID's evolution apart from protecting the health of the national herd is a matter of how much further ahead, and how fast, those who use ID get than those who don't.

“If there is value to placing an ID tag in a cow or a calf's ear, which I believe there is, by making it mandatory you're effectively forcing everyone to become better managers,” says Kevin Dhuyvetter, KSU agricultural economist. On a voluntary basis, those already using the technology continue to distance themselves further from those who aren't using it.

Paradoxically, some of the same folks who have railed against mandatory NAIS in favor of a voluntary program are the same ones who continue to press for laws to socialize the marketplace, and make the other guy play down to their level rather than embracing free-market competition.

Truth is, mandatory ID would slow the inevitable progression of concentration and consolidation by forcing even those riding drag to at least have the same management tool already being used to economic benefit by those in the point position. Meanwhile, more governmental control of the marketplace, which are really laws aimed at limiting opportunity, would actually speed up consolidation by forcing producer attrition and increasing risk.

Think of that.

In the meantime, the lack of a national standardized ID system — mandatory or voluntary — leaves all producers vulnerable to a cattle-health crisis. For those already investing in the technology for management purposes, this void means a fair portion of their ID investment ends up down the proverbial rathole because it can't also be used for national animal-health purposes.