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Cattle Auctioneer Promotes Tracking Plan

A Montana livestock auction company is advocating a simplified cattle-tracking RFID system as an alternative to the one being considered by the USDA.
By Claire Swedberg
Jun 13, 2005A livestock auction company is recommending a cattle-tracking RFID system to its customers as an alternative to what it sees as a cumbersome nationwide animal-tracking program to be mandated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Northern Livestock Video Auction, in Billings, Mt., is recommending a system it calls Verified Electronically ID Source and Age Program (VESA) as a simpler alternative to trace the age and origins of every cow that passes through U.S. stockyards.

Northern Livestock Video is recommending that cattle producers join the program by having their cattle tagged with RFID chips through their state's agriculture department before they leave their birthplace. Then the tracking would stop until the cow reaches its final destination, when farmers would have the option of reading the tag if they suspect an animal is diseased. Each tag would be encoded with the animal's ID number and its date and place of birth. That way, if anyone needs to track the origins of a cow, they can go back to the place listed on the RFID tag.

USDA spokesperson Amy Spillman
The system would require relatively little investment on the part of cattle producers and stockyards. For example, instead of investing in computer systems, software and handheld RFID readers that average $400 each, producers would buy RFID tags from their state veterinarian. When a calf is born, the producer would send the animal's birth date and the producer's name, address, phone number and premises ID number to the state. The state would then enter that information into a national database. The same data would be encoded in encrypted form onto the tag, which would be sent back to the producer. The producer would hire a veterinarian to attach the tag to the calf's left ear and issue a health certificate before the producer could sell the animal.

According to Northern Livestock Video president Patrick Goggins, the 96 million cattle in the United States pass through different hands three and a half times, on average, before reaching their final destination—the meat packer. With the VESA program—which Goggins says he developed—stockyards, where cattle often spend the bulk of their lives, would not use the tag or add details to the tag.

If this system is implemented by producers throughout Montana and, ultimately, the United States, Goggins hopes it may supplant a more complicated plan being developed by the USDA and mandated for 2009.

The current USDA plan, the National American Identification System (NAIS), would require that each farmer, stockyard owner and feeder keep an electronic record of every head of cattle as it passes through his business. That, according to Goggins, could be a quagmire for those business owners. Not only is it expensive, he says, NAIS would be a problem of mechanics. In his own stockyards, he says, 450,000 head of cattle move in and out each year. "The wad of data that would go with that would be almost impossible. God Himself couldn't do it."

Goggins contends that stockyard owners are being forced to keep cattle records to save meat packers from the liability of having a diseased animal. "The packer wants to be able to read this thing [the RFID tag] on a sick animal and say, 'He did it,'" Goggins declares. "I'm not saying they shouldn't have any trace," Goggins explains, but he asserts that, realistically, the tracking of a sick animal should involve only the point of origin, where the animal was tagged.

To ensure rapid disease containment and maximum protection of America's animals, the NAIS program is intended to give officials the ability to track the movements within the past 48 hours of any animal discovered to be diseased or exposed to disease. Goggins doubts such a goal will ever be met. "That's a pipe dream," he says. While such detailed tracking, he adds, is logistically impossible for stockyard owners, his own plan will offer the rudimentary details: age and origin of birth.

In 2002, a group of representatives from the cattle industry, along with state and federal agencies, developed the U.S. Animal Identification Plan (USAIP), which outlined the workings of a national animal identification system (see Can RFID Protect the Beef Supply?). When the USDA formulated the NAIS plan in 2004, it incorporated many elements of USAIP. The USDA is accepting public comments about the NAIS plan until July 6, 2005, on the NAIS Web site. Under the plan, states would be responsible for assigning premises ID numbers, and all cattle farms would be required to tag their cattle. Data would be inputted to a repository the USDA would have access to, says USDA spokesperson Amy Spillman. The mandate would apply to all livestock, including horses, domesticated cervids and poultry moving in groups.

The NAIS plan, Goggins says, could be "a nightmare" for stockyard owners.

According to Spillman, the USDA is receptive to Goggins' proposal, as well as any others. "We're looking at different methods to make this as efficient as possible, and we're open to new ideas."
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