March brings more than basketball to Indiana these days. Many counties hold their 4-H weigh-ins for cattle on March weekends. Any 4-H member who wants to show his or her calf at the county fair this summer is typically required to bring it to a central point, often the fairgrounds, for weigh-in and identification.
The identification portion is becoming more streamlined, thanks to new technology. Around for a couple of years or more already, retinal scanning is becoming the identification method of choice for 4-H cattle, sheep and goats, at least at the state level.
"Indiana was the first state to use retinal scanning to identify 4-H livestock, and also the first state to require that all animals coming to the state fair be scanned earlier in the year at the county level," says Clint Rusk, in charge of 4-H animal projects and livestock activities at the Indiana State Fair.
Any animals that will be entered in the state fair are scanned in all of Indiana's 92 counties, Rusk says. Ashley Schultz, Extension Youth Educator in Johnson County, once helped run scans on top-placing animals at the State Fair. Recently, she demonstrated the process for 4-H'ers in her county on sheep. Retinal scanning days for sheep are typically held later in the spring, usually May, so spring lambs coming to the state fair must also be scanned.
"The benefit is that matches are much easier to make than with noseprinting," Schultz says. "That can require a detective- someone trained in making matches. Even so, sometimes there can be smudges or other factors that makes it hard to make matches. It's much easier to match up retinal scans."
The process works because the vein pattern in the back of the retina in each eye is unique. The pattern is even different in each eye of the same animal. The veins show up as a pattern resembling tree branches when the sophisticated camera shines a light into the eye and snaps an automatic picture. With a little training, it's relatively easy to use the device and obtain quality pictures suitable for making matches, she says.
It would be nice not to have to use these techniques, the educator notes. Unfortunately, enough suspicious activity occurs, even in 4-H, that state leaders still consider it's necessary to try to deter those who would be dishonest and switch animals.
Some counties require all animals coming to the county fair to be scanned as well. "It's time consuming, but I think it makes sense at the county level too," Schultz says.
Rusk notes that whether to require retinal scanning at the county level is a county-by-county decision. Requiring it for state fair entries is a state level decision.