While some rejoiced at the news, other folks were disappointed with USDA's announcement last fall that the National Animal Identification System would always be voluntary at the federal level. Among them were Michigan producers who had staked their state's recovery from bovine tuberculosis (TB) on such a traceback program.

Forced into a corner by a TB outbreak in a five-county area of the northeast lower Peninsula in 1999, Michigan knows well the benefits of a traceback program for animal-health purposes, having instituted a mandatory cattle ID program in 2001. The following year, the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) upgraded the metal-tag program to radio-frequency ID (RFID) tags in the infected zone — 11 counties tucked into the northeast corner of the Lower Peninsula; and in the Upper Peninsula, an area free of TB, in 2004.

And last month, MDA began requiring that all cattle moving off the farm in commerce be identified with RFID tags, the first state in the U.S. to do so (see “All Tagged Up,” page 34).

“We feel this is a very strong leverage point (in regaining our TB-free status) because we can document and track these animals pretty quickly with electronic ID,” says Monte Bordner, a purebred Angus producer from Sturgis who's served as chairman of the state's TB Advisory Committee for five years.

In fact, he says, one TB case detected at slaughter was traced by its RFID-tag information back through the sale barn and two previous premises in a matter of a few hours, something that could have taken weeks with the old system.

“It's been kind of humorous for us here in Michigan with an animal-health problem and all its challenges, to listen to these western ranchers who haven't had to deal with something like this tell us how everything won't work,” Bordner says.

Just as unwelcome was USDA's “voluntary” announcement last fall. It came at a time when a public and private collaboration was feverishly working the state educating producers on the merits of the mandatory RFID program that would take effect March 1, 2007.

Whether USDA's decision was a disruption to the effort or just a hiccup depends on who you talk to, says Dan Buskirk, Michigan State University Extension beef specialist.

“People were pretty disappointed, it certainly caused some confusion, and it gave the naysayers some fodder against the mandatory Michigan program,” he says.

“I hated to see it happen,” adds Kevin Kirk, Michigan's ID coordinator and special assistant to the state veterinarian. “We spent several days on the phone explaining to people the difference between the Michigan program and the national program.”

In the end, the trio says, it was Michigan's animal-health realities and a full-court press that garnered the high level of buy-in exhibited last month.

“If you're going to make a change, you need to spend a lot of time communicating the importance of the change,” Kirk says. “To be honest, numerous producers called and asked why USDA backed down. They weren't happy. They feel it could be very detrimental to the industry if there's a disease outbreak.”

When I talked to Kirk in early March, the first sales since the mandatory RFID policy began had occurred the day before. He said reports from four markets indicated the number of cattle arriving without RFID tags at each was in the low single digits.

“That's a pretty good success story,” Kirk says. “We're on track to be the first state in the U.S. with a comprehensive, electronic, animal-health tracking system for cattle.”