More and more people throughout the cattle industry are becoming aware of the importance of a robust tracking system, but what will it look like and who controls or has access to the data collected? These are the pressing questions that producers, industry stakeholders, and government officials are trying to answer. The idea of tracing the movement of livestock, particularly cattle, is not new, but the effort to implement a viable disease traceability program is gaining steam.
Although there is currently a USDA-mandated tracking system for interstate transport of cattle over 18 months of age, officials are trying to find a path to provide traceback information on more animals and to eventually include end-to-end traceability.
Having a good animal disease traceability (ADT) system for cattle rose to top of mind in December 2003 when bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was detected in a cow from a dairy farm in Washington state. That case involved a mature Holstein cow imported from Canada.
The finding quickly shut down U.S. export markets but, when fears subsided, markets started to reopen and the urgency for a system became less intense; still, the need remains. Filling that need is something the cattle industry and USDA is working to accomplish.
The National Institute of Animal Agriculture (NIAA) has been at the forefront of the issue, hosting symposiums with industry experts and USDA officials to address concerns. NIAA’s efforts include a Cattle Traceability Working Group with a number of divisions to address concerns.
Among those involved in traceability program studies and implementation are Jack Shere, DVM, Ph.D., USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service deputy administrator and chief veterinary officer; Joe Leathers, manager of the 6666 Ranch in Texas; and Matt Teagarden, CEO of the Kansas Livestock Association (KLA). Each shared their thoughts with WLJ on what the program should include, what it could include, and what a workable nationwide system might look like.
Asked why implementation of a nationwide disease traceability plan has been slow to evolve, Shere acknowledged that the 2003 BSE case provided the impetus for why a program is necessary. He noted that incident and others in the U.S. did not involve BSE in the classical form, “but the idea is so important for tracking and finding and proving—not disease incidents—but disease freedom,” he said.
Shere told WLJ the slow movement is in large part due to the diverse nature of the U.S. cattle industry, which includes large operations and small farms with less than 30 head of cattle.
“You also have not only cattle, but you have the different sectors of the cattle industry and then you have the dairy industry also to consider. So, how do you put something together that works for everybody? That’s the challenge and that’s where you’ve got to listen to the industry and bring this system along slowly and get their buy-in, as well as listen to their input, and that’s what we’ve tried to do.”
Teagarden said the ability to implement a wide traceability program met a number of hurdles with initial talks of tracking every movement of every head of cattle. He said technology was also a hurdle.
“Over time as weeks and months went by we regained that market access and so that pressure was reduced, and so I think we were able to settle back into what was comfortable—what was maybe easy. And, so shifted away from the push.”
He noted traceability systems in other countries have, in many cases, been in response to a disease outbreak or export challenges. “I think in absence of that ‘crisis situation’—crisis might be too extreme—but in that situation, I think the momentum hasn’t been there to push for it.”
Teagarden acknowledged the current ADT system, which is focused on interstate commerce and breeding-age cattle, and said, “I think we all recognize that that group of cattle is certainly not the entire cattle supply, not the fed cattle supply that makes up the bulk of the cattle that then become our export supply, and so I think while there is some traceability in place I think we are now—cattle producers, the industry, the beef community—recognizing that we need a more robust system that better protects the industry.”
Leathers, who is also part of the NIAA Traceability Working Group, noted that opinions offered are his own and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the entire working group. He opined, “The foot-dragging comes just because it is change; you know ranchers for the most part, they don’t like change, and in reality, there are a lot of them that have a little fear of technology. I am one of them.”
With that said, Leathers noted that once the technology or system is explained he is more accepting and his thoughts turn to “how do I make that work in the field without slowing our work down or making it more labor intensive or more stress on the cattle?”
With acceptance of a program, growing questions turn to the technology used. And, according to the three people WLJ talked with, that technology must not slow the speed of commerce. Leathers said, for him, that means it doesn’t cause him to spend more time when working cattle.
Electronic identification/radio frequency identification (EID/RFID) ear tags is one technology meeting the need. These can be low-frequency or ultra-high frequency with each having its own advantage. But common to both is the ability to scan animal information while it is moving, and have it entered in a database, reducing the need to manually write down information. The ultra-high frequency tags can collect information on large groups of cattle as they pass by a reader, whereas low-frequency tags require each individual animal to be scanned.
Shere said either of these methods could be used, or even something else that may be in development. He emphasized, in reference to USDA, “We’ve never been into the technology of things, but we want to build a system that works for everybody ... so, half the industry says, ‘we want ultra-high’ and the other half says, ‘we want low’—we need to incorporate that into what we are doing.”
Shere said USDA does not want to dictate which tag to use, but only that it meets their requirements to show where cattle are born and where they are slaughtered.
With a number of EID tags on the market, Shere, Leathers, and Teagarden agree that at some point the manufacturers may have to share technology. They noted that it would seem cumbersome for an auction market, feedlot, or packer to maintain more than one EID reader in order to accommodate all of the different tags.
With the technology identified, another concern of the infrastructure of a mandatory ADT program is what is collected and where is it stored.
The question of what information on each animal is collected can be answered with a long list of performance data, but most important to the ADT is what is often called “bookend” information—where the animal was born and where it was slaughtered.
The additional information may have value when marketing cattle and collecting that information would be up to each producer.
“We don’t want all of the producer data, the daily producer information—how much did the cow eat, and so on, what was the final finish weight—all that kind of stuff. That’s information that the producer would want and, if they want that, a system could be built to store that data for them based on the tag,” Shere said.
“We are interested in program information that has to do with disease only. We don’t want to hold all of that data, but we do want to hold the program information like disease data in regard to brucellosis, tuberculosis, those kinds of diseases that are our program diseases. We do need that information.”
Everyone involved emphasized that keeping data secure is a top priority. But where it will be housed remains to be determined. It will need to be accessible by state or USDA veterinarians in the event of a disease outbreak, but they will not hold the information or have access to it except when needed.
Most of the people involved in finding the right path forward for mandatory ADT favor a third party holding the information. If additional producer management data is also stored in the database, an additional firewall would need to be in place, so only producers could access that information for marketing or herd management purposes.
How would it work?
As noted, the current ADT program administered by USDA is for cattle over 18 months of age moving across state lines. Helping to lead the way for a mandatory birth-to-slaughter system is a pilot program in Kansas that was announced in June called Cattle Trace.
This program is described as a “public-private partnership which will develop and test a purpose-built cattle disease traceability infrastructure in Kansas that will guide discussion and development of traceability on a national scale.”
The KLA is a participant in the program and its membership amended policy in December 2017 to support mandatory cattle disease traceability for all ages. Others involved include private sector partners, Kansas State University, and the Kansas Department of Agriculture. The project will be funded with both public and private resources.
Kansas was chosen as a candidate for a pilot program because all sectors of the beef industry can be found within its borders. Organizers say it is in a position to test an expanded system capable of informing and guiding development of an enhanced traceability system on a national level.
Teagarden said the pilot program is targeting 55,000 head of cattle including some that will be tracked end to end. He noted, “Not every head of cattle in the system in the project will be end to end. There will be some that we tag at the feedyard, read them as they leave the feedyard and read them at the packer, and it will be just those two stops.”
He said that at some point herd management information could be included, but added, “To be clear—that will be up to the individual producer and how they want to take advantage of that opportunity. Our focus for the project is simply tag number, a location, and a date and time stamp. Those are the three pieces of data that we want to capture as the cattle move through the system.”
Teagarden continued to explain, “There will be some cattle that go from a ranch to an auction market, maybe to a feedyard that is not participating, but they end up at a packer that is participating. So, I think it will be too lofty of a goal to have every head of cattle in the project be end to end, read at every stop along the way, but we are trying to identify as many cattle as possible to have that full end-to-end test.”
Although production or herd management information could be included with each tag, Shere also made clear that USDA is not interested in handling the value-added component but noted traceability and marketing issues go hand in hand. “In a competition where a country is asking for birth data as well as slaughter data—birth to finish data—we don’t have that system, we can’t compete in a world market without that system, and that affects our ability to do trade.
“Now, many in the production business say regulators shouldn’t be worried about trade—it is none of their business, it’s not an issue—but it is a bonus for ADT. If you have good animal disease traceability it’s a benefit for trade. It just goes hand in hand; you can’t separate them.”
As already noted, cattle producers are realizing the need and advantage of a robust traceability system. This is evident at many levels and with a number of organizations. In fact, traceability was identified as a top priority in the Beef Industry Long-Range Plan 2016-2020.
The plan states, “Adopt animal I.D. traceability systems, secure the broad adoption of individual animal I.D. traceability system(s) across the beef community to equip the industry to effectively manage a disease outbreak while enhancing both domestic and global trust in U.S. beef and ensuring greater access to export markets.”
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has also expressed support of livestock identification and traceability. On its website noting the association’s policies, it states, “The AVMA believes that permanent, unique identification of animals and premises is essential for tracing origin and destination of all livestock, and in particular food-producing animals, in order to protect the nation’s livestock industry and public health, and to enable the traceback and trace forward of animals for the purpose of animal disease control and eradication.
“The AVMA recommends that a high priority be placed on the development of alternatives to hot-iron branding such as the use of electronic individual animal identification and the development of an electronic system to facilitate rapid traceback of livestock in the event of a highly contagious disease outbreak.”
The Cattle Trace pilot is projected for completion with a summary report in early 2020.
Teagarden said, “We are hopeful, optimistic, planning for the project to knock down some of the barriers, answer some of the questions that producers have and make it easier to begin to implement across the country.”
Shere said that in addition to the Cattle Trace pilot project, test programs have also been conducted in other states. And when asked about realistic goals, he said, “We are targeting the next two to three years to do a push to get things incorporated, get things changed and our undersecretary [Greg Ibach] is really interested in moving ADT along to benefit the producers. He is very interested in making ADT functional.”
Leathers told WLJ, “I get the feeling that there are more responsive ... people wanting to work on this than there was in 2003 or any time since then. There is still a lot of work to be done. The sale barns have got to figure out how to make it work. Stocker operators have got to be able to figure out how it is going to work. We’ve got to decide if it’s going to be a bookend approach or a full traceability approach.”
He also noted the importance of listening to input from industry stakeholders, saying, “When we started this with traceability working group through the NIAA, I said we need to get other producers’ input. We can’t afford to leave any size of operation out of the thought process while this is being produced.”
As for concerns of “big brother” watching, Shere offered reassurance, “Our interest is strictly disease purposes, what we can do. We’re not out to count their cattle or turn them over to IRS and we wouldn’t know by the tag information except the animals that they sell—the animals that move to slaughter.”
It is also important to take the time necessary to get the program right, Shere said. He is seeing a transformation in the thought process and willingness to accept that moving forward with ADT is necessary.
“I’ve seen it throughout all sectors. We’re getting there—we’re coming along. Some folks wish we would move a little faster, some a little slower, but I think the industry realizes the utility of animal disease traceability and what it will bring to their industry and we’re going to get there. It’s just a matter of doing it right, and if we’ve taken the time we’ve taken, it’s good time to make sure we get it right.”