One of the biggest "what-ifs" in all of agriculture is "What if there is an outbreak of unknown or foreign animal disease?"
Kansas cattlemen, in cooperation with Kansas State University and World Perspectives Consulting, are in the process of developing Cattle Trace, an animal identification and tracking system that they hope will become a national model that will one day enable rapid, electronic tracing any bovine in the U.S. herd.
Members of the Kansas Livestock Association got an update on the progress of the program during Beef Industry University at the KLA annual Convention Nov. 28-30 in Wichita.
"Realistically, we know that we won’t be able to trace 100% of animals," said Brad White, a Cattle Trace collaborator. "But the goal is 49% to 90%, with a starting point of 68%."
USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has said that a level of 70% traceability would allow the effective management of a disease outbreak.
White said Cattle Trace collaborators started by taking a careful look at what other countries around the world — countries that compete with the U.S. for selling beef into export markets — are doing on traceability.
The U.S. stands alone among the biggest cattle and beef exporters in not having a nationwide traceability system. About 61% of global beef exports come from countries that have traceability systems in place.
There has been talk of an animal identification or tracing system for decades, but the issue was brought into sharper focus after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which heightened concerns about the potential for introduction of a foreign animal disease as a way to carry out a terrorist attack on the U.S. food system.
Sticking points for many producers have long been management of data and concerns about keeping data private and about who would pay for the hefty initial cost of setting up a system and maintaining it.
Cattlemen expressed concerns that traceability would not provide enough added value to offset the cost of participation in an identification system.
David Gregg, a World Perspectives consulting projects manager, has been working with Cattle Trace to try to address those concerns and develop a system that can be replicated across the country.
The Cattle Trace system, which is entering its second year of a two-year pilot project, uses ultra-high frequency tags to collect data on cattle. The goal is to begin collecting data a birth and retire the tag after the animal is harvested.
"Since privacy of data is a major concern for cattlemen, the Cattle Trace plan, data would be stored by a third-party vendor and would be made available only in the event of a disease outbreak.
The cost of the 100% implementation nationwide would be about $386 million, Gregg said. The benefit would come from improved access to markets, especially in China and the European Union and would also be derived from limiting the negative market impact should there be a disease outbreak.
"We all remember December of 2004 and the cow that killed Christmas," Gregg said. "That one case of BSE cost U.S. cattleman $120 per head, and we didn’t get the impact made up until 2009."
During the first year of the pilot, Cattle Trace has recruited participants with all three packing plants, 14 feedyards and 7 livestock markets already in the program. Readers are already installed or are in the process of being installed at participating locations, he said.
In the final year of the pilot, recruitment of participants will continue with a focus moving to cow-calf operators and backgrounders. More readers will be installed and work on implementing Cattle Trace system across the state.
Cassie Kniebel, who has managed the implementation of the Cattle Trace program, said they looked at different potential set-ups for the program and arrived at the tag they are using because it is the only ultra-high frequency tag that has been approved by USDA.
The tags can be read by a handheld reader as cattle are worked, she said, but readers can also be permanently installed at feedyards and livestock markets. The tags can be read several feet away as they move down a chute or alleyway.
HOW IT WORKS: Cassie Kniebel, manager of the Cattle Trace program, updates members of KLA on the pilot project's progress so far. The project's goal is to establish a Kansas system of animal identification and traceability that can be replicated nationwide.
"One of our big goals was to be able to capture this data at the speed of commerce," she said. "We don’t want it to impair the working process in any way."
The pilot program’s enrollment target is 55,000 head and, as of Nov. 30, 31,841 head had been enrolled at three levels. There are 7,360 animals enrolled at the cow-calf level; 11,433 at the direct buy or feedyard level; and 13,048 at the livestock market level.
"We see this traceability system as an insurance policy for the U.S. cattle markets," she said.