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Texas farmers to track their livestock in national program
An Animal Who's Who

Say goodbye to Elsie and Flossie, and hello to a couple of 15-digit numbers. Under a new federal program, farmers and ranchers across the country will begin identifying livestock by number for a national database.

Animal health officials will use the database to track cattle in case of livestock disease outbreaks like mad cow or foot-and-mouth (FMD) disease.

In June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced it would distribute $11.6 million to states in 2004 to help implement a national animal identification system (NAIS). States will register farms and ranches, called premises, and tag or track all commercial livestock, including cattle, sheep, goats, swine and poultry. The goal is to control outbreaks of disease faster, said W. Ron DeHaven, with USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

During an outbreak, the NAIS would allow animal health officials to trace back or track infected animals and any animal that has had contact with the infected animal within 48 hours, said Dr. Bob Hillman, executive director of the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC).

The USDA initially calls for states to volunteer for the NAIS. The program could become mandatory as early as 2007, Hillman said.

In 2004, TAHC received $1 million from the USDA for a pilot NAIS program, Hillman said. In the pilot, TAHC will begin assigning numbers to all Texas premises that have livestock, Hillman said. Next, the state will begin tagging animals and TAHC will work with private companies to collect, track and retrieve the data.

Farmers will embed radio frequency identification tags in the ears of cattle, said Jon Johnson, associate director of commodities and regulatory activities with the Texas Farm Bureau. Farmers will probably track poultry and swine in collective "lots," rather than by identifying individual animals, Johnson said.

"You don't want to hang a tag in a chicken's comb," Johnson said. "And swine, if you put a tag in their ear, they're pretty bad about ripping them out."

Splitting the tab
It's not clear whether farmers will pay for identification tags--which could cost between $2 and $2.50 a tag--or whether the government will help with the costs.

Rosalee Coleman, who raises and sells cattle in George West, Texas, said she hopes the beef industry can share the costs.

"It will either have to be a government program or it will have to be spread throughout the industry segments," Coleman said.

The USDA has said it will take private and public funding to implement a national animal identification system, and it's not certain how much it will cost. An additional $33 million is earmarked for the NAIS in President Bush's proposed fiscal 2005 budget, according to the USDA.

Work out the kinks
Some Texas ranchers worry about the security of information kept in a national database.

"It ought to be a protected database so no one would have access to this information unless there's an outbreak and they're needing to do a trace-back," said Dwyatt Bell, who raises 60 to 70 cattle with his son in Hopkins County.

Hillman said some farmers are worried that data on their farms and animals might be used to manipulate markets.

Implementing the NAIS will be challenging but could help ranchers in the long run, said Matt Brockman, executive vice president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, which has 12,750 members.

"The electronic ID and database management system will allow the industry to do a better job of managing records, sorting animals and allowing information to flow through the various production systems," Brockman said.

The Texas pilot program will run for at least a year or two while state animal health officials and farmers work out the kinks, Johnson said.

"I think we're looking at three to five years for the whole nation to get this thing in place," Johnson said. "It's going to be a massive undertaking."

Karen Hudgins