THE NATIONAL Animal Identification System (NAIS) is really all about animal health. Imagine an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the U.S., for example. The benefits of being able to quickly trace where an infected animal was born and where it has moved throughout the country soon come into sharp focus. The new system is intended to help stop a serious disease from spreading throughout the country's livestock herd.

The essential components of the NAIS are premises identification, animal identification, either individually or by groups or lots, and, eventually, individual animal tracking. USDA recently issued a Draft Strategic Plan calling for all U.S. locations that manage or hold animals (premises) to be registered with state departments of agriculture by January 2008.

The NAIS is seeking to identify all cattle, swine, sheep, goats, horses, poultry, bison, deer, elk, llamas and alpacas in the country. Different species will require different identification systems, which is causing some debate in technology circles. At the very least, having each animal carry an identification number that indicates where the animal was born will be helpful in determining where the animal moved throughout the country.

48-hour trace-back

Ideally, if an animal becomes sick, all animals and premises that have had contact with that animal over the course of its lifetime could be identified within 48 hours. Quick action could limit disease transmission throughout the U.S. farm animal population. As one industry official points out, by being able to specifically identify the sick animal's path through the production chain, U.S. producers may not suffer the fate of having lots of animals destroyed unnecessarily based on speculation of exposure to the sick animal.

This 48-hour trace-back goal makes a lot of sense at first glance. However, the logistics are a bit overwhelming. An even loftier goal is called trace forward, meaning pinpointing the present locations of all the animals that may have had contact with a particular animal during its path through the production system. Not only would the individual animal need to be identified, but also all of the farms, ranches, county fairs, auction markets and trucking firms where the animal had been, in addition to all of the other animals that may have been coming and going from those same locations at the same time.

Species working groups comprised of industry and government representatives from across the country have been developing plans for each type of animal. Some species already have identification systems in place, but these systems are not consistent across the country. Experts are quick to point out that individual animal identification is more likely to succeed if producers are able to gain some additional economic advantages unrelated to the NAIS, such as receiving a premium price for age- or source-verified cattle, for example. Some producers are already identifying individual animals as part of quality-assured programs to provide trace-back.

Central data system

But where is all of that data on animal movement going to end up? It was that very question that recently caused the whole NAIS project to hit a speed bump on the road to implementation and acceptance. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns and the House Agriculture Committee recently called for creation of a privately held database for keeping animal identification information.

The livestock industry has been charged with putting together a multi-species consortium to manage the data. Some members of the livestock industry are concerned that a database managed by USDA would be subject to the Freedom of Information Act, thereby leaving information about farms or animals vulnerable. Some people also want the data bank to hold value-added information.

The livestock industry is now trying to sort out how the infrastructure of a privately held database would be paid for, and what it will mean to producers who have to access the data. “I see this insistence on a private database delaying the [NAIS] process another three to four years,” notes Gary Wilson, an Ohio beef producer and co-chair of the NAIS Cattle Working Group. “There have been good, valid points made. It comes down to everyone staying focused and looking at what is best for the industry.”

No hot-wired cows

As more and more buzz is circulating about the NAIS in the U.S., some livestock producers are incorrectly assuming they have to become an electronics guru or a biochemistry expert in order to meet proposed requirements for identifying their farms and animals. In reality, cattle producers should not need any special equipment beyond a simple ear tag unless they were using individual animal identification anyway, such as to market age- and source-verified cattle.

The first step in the NAIS process is to register each location where livestock are kept with the appropriate state department of agriculture before January 2008. Each premise will be assigned a seven-digit identification number upon registration. USDA is expected to release a nationwide individual animal numbering system this winter. Once the animal numbering system is available, animals can be tagged with a 15-digit number including a prefix representing the animal as being from the U.S., in addition to numbers linking the animal to the farm of origin.

Departments of agriculture in each state will house the premise identification numbers for now. The individual animal identification numbers will not have to be reported unless there is a disease outbreak with a specific animal. Eventually the centralized database will hold individual animal identification numbers linked to premises.

Cattle Working Group

The NAIS Cattle Working Group, made up of 75 representatives from all facets of the dairy and beef industry, has been working since early 2004 to figure out a way to implement the USDA national animal identification plan to fit the needs of the country's dairy and beef producers. “From the Cattle Working Group's perspective, we feel RFID [radio frequency identification] technology and its ear-tag applications are the best fit for the cattle industry at this time,” Wilson explains. “Most cattlemen know how to run ear taggers. Most cattlemen are not used to taking tissue samples for DNA testing. Not that those technologies aren't good and effective, but right now most cattle producers want an identification system that can be useful in their day-to-day management. The Cattle Working Group felt some type of ear-tag device and low-frequency RFID will best accommodate cattle industry needs at this time.”

Beef producers would be asked to put an ear tag in each animal's left ear. Specifying the left ear would allow concentration points such as sale barns and packers to set up equipment to consistently read the tag as quickly as possible as animals move through commerce. There are across-the-board requests that the NAIS not slow down the speed of commerce at any point in the marketing chain.

Producers could also comply with the NAIS without using an actual radio frequency tag. “We ought to be able to put the identification number on a simple, plastic tag and put it in the animal's ear, too,” Wilson says. “It is important to remember that at this point in the process, we are not asking producers to report the individual animal identification number to anyone unless the animal expressed a disease. In the event of a disease, you would use the animal's number as a reference tag to lead you back to the herd of origin.”

Wilson notes that significant numbers of U.S. cattle are already electronically identified as part of age- and source-verified programs. “And those producers are making it work,” Wilson states. “If we give producers a choice if they want to use an RFID tag to enhance their on-farm management data, they can use it. If producers simply want to comply with the system without putting in RFID, they can do that too for the cost of a simple tag.”

No reader required

“There is a common misconception among some beef producers that they need to go out and purchase expensive equipment for their farm right away in order to participate in the NAIS,” says Jim Akers, University of Kentucky animal scientist. “In truth, 90 to 95% of the farms in our part of the country are not going to need an RFID reader.”

Dale Blasi, Kansas State University beef cattle specialist, concurs. He expects the NAIS to create market niches for people to provide animal identification services. He also points out that producers will be able to have animal identification information registered at the point of sale as sale barns and packers install equipment for reading identification tags.

Niels Fogt of Digital Angel Corporation offers another perspective, “Some producers who want to better monitor their genetics and management criteria through retained ownership may find electronic tags and readers useful. Scanners and software programs at the processing chute can automate the capture of animal health product use, weaning weights, ultrasound data, DNA, etc.,” he says. “This information can then be tied back to sire and dam records. As one of our customers tells us, ‘You are limited only by your imagination and the depth of your thinking.’”

Technology questions

However, many questions still remain as both producers and officials at concentration points, such as sale barns and packing plants, ponder what devices, scanners, software and other technology will work best in challenging agricultural environments. USDA recently announced a call for research projects investigating equipment that will enhance animal identification. Up to now, there has been no uniform testing of animal identification products. “There is no Consumer Reports version of how this equipment performs,” Blasi says. He emphasizes that an ISO certification indicates only that the equipment conforms to international standards and that the certification is not an indicator of actual performance in a specific environment.

A number of pilot projects have been investigating the practical aspects of animal identification in different parts of the country since mid-2005. These projects all have investigated how premise registration and animal movement can work together. As part of that investigation, some researchers, such as Blasi, have also had an opportunity to get firsthand experience with how some of the RFID technology works in a real-world beef production environment. All of the pilot projects have been using low-frequency identification technology. Most of those original pilot projects will conclude during the summer of 2006. A synopsis of the state pilot projects is on the USDA Web site at animalid.aphis.usda.gov/naiz/subjecats/state_tribe/index.shtml.

Challenging environment

During the course of the pilot projects, some of the technology challenges have become apparent. “We have issues at all three junctures — tags, scanners and software,” Wilson relates. “Our early feedback from pilot projects being conducted around the country shows the technology is not working every day. We tend to have a lot of interference issues with the low-frequency technology, especially in metal barns and metal gates, but that doesn't mean those issues can't be overcome.”

Wilson cautions producers that not all technology on the market has been extensively tested in agricultural environments. “Right now it is a ‘buyer beware’ situation,” he states. “People are saying they only have so much money to invest and they don't want to spend the money on mistakes. In 1999 Australia invited all companies using low-frequency identification to be evaluated. The country then chose one company to produce their tags. Here in the U.S. we have a problem with putting all of our eggs in one basket. Competition is good, but we've got issues.”

Companies are testing a mind-boggling array of animal identification options, but agriculture presents a unique set of challenges, according to Niels Fogt of Digital Angel. “You can track a box at Wal-Mart using this technology, but the livestock environment can be a lot more brutal and challenging than a Wal-Mart warehouse,” he says.

USDA claims to be “technology neutral” when it comes to animal identification equipment, preferring to let the species working groups discuss what would work best for identifying each animal.

“It's a bit premature to tell people which piece of technology to use,” says Robert Fourdraine, vice chair of the National Animal Identification Operating Committee of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture and chief operating officer of the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium. “Quite a few companies are selling identification technology, but the first steps are to get the premises registered and then wait until USDA makes the [animal] numbering systems available.”

More Information

The USDA National Animal Identification Web site contains more specific information about the NAIS project at animalid.aphis.usda.gov/nais/index.shtml.

Producers can register their premises through their state department of agriculture or through their state veterinarian. A USDA Web site helps producers find the appropriate state contacts at www.usda.gov/nais.

Look for a story about new animal-tracking technologies in the next issue of Farm Industry News.