Making the case for a national traceability program

Three states are testing pilot projects to see if a workable traceability system is feasible.

February 20, 2019

7 Min Read
Dean Cluck Feedyard

By Kindra Gordon

Cattle producers in Kansas, Florida and Texas are taking the bull by the horns, or maybe by the ear tag, with regard to developing a traceability program for U.S. cattle. The three states are each testing different pilot projects designed to track cattle from the point of commerce – most typically auction barns or feedlots – through to the packer.

Representatives from each state shared experiences to date with their pilot projects during the Cattle Health and Well-Being Committee meeting at the 2019 Cattle Industry Convention in New Orleans. Brandon Depenbusch, chair of Kansas’ CattleTrace project, noted, “This isn’t a competition between states. We are all in this ship together to find a cattle traceability program that will work for the US.”

Ross Wilson, CEO of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association agreed, stating, “This is not about competing, but about finding what will realistically and economically move traceability ahead in the U.S. We are behind the curve, especially on access to foreign markets and traceback on disease outbreaks.”

Gene Lollis, vice president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, noted that with Florida’s 21.3 million residents, 105 million annual visitors, 14 seaports and 5 international airports, “We are highly vulnerable to a lot of things coming in on our peninsula.”

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Lollis pointed to the fact that traceability is used all around us – from vehicle identification numbers, to vegetables, pigs, sheep and humans. He stated, “We know there is a need for the beef industry to have a program. Now we must sort out the details.”

Differing approaches

In Kansas, the pilot effort, which was announced June 30, 2018, has been named CattleTrace, and was established as a 501(c)(3) organization. Depenbusch describes CattleTrace as a “producer driven initiative” solely designed to track animals in the event of a disease outbreak.

Fourteen feedyards, eight auction markets, three packers and over 50 cow-calf producers are involved in the traceability project, which has already dispersed 34,000 tags. In addition, 11 states have expressed interest or are already involved in CattleTrace. The project is focused on “data, privacy and speed of commerce,” according to Depenbusch, who says they plan to “build it, test it and evaluate the economics by 2020.”

CattleTrace is using only ultra-high frequency technologies and is collecting four data points: individual animal identification number, a GPS location, date and time. Tag readers are located at livestock markets, feedyards and beef processors.

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“We take pride in being narrowly focused and think with those four data points and our third-party database we can maintain data privacy and trace animals for disease traceability.” He explained that because CattleTrace is established as a non-profit, it owns the data, which is free from the Freedom Of Information (FOI) Act. “This allows producer data to be kept secure,” said Depenbusch.

Florida’s focus

Florida’s pilot project began with an initial discussion in 2017 initiated by then president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, Ken Griner. Stakeholders from all sectors of the state’s cattle industry met and affirmed the need, agreed to an electronic system, and set the guideline for animals to be tagged at 18 months of age and older before entering commerce.

One livestock market that sells 102,000 head annually was established as the demonstration site. Low frequency EID tags were used and found to be effective with an initial test of 840 head in December 2018. Data collected for Florida’s program includes a 15-digit number on the tag, address of the cattle’s original origin, gender of the animal and determination if it is beef or dairy, age of the animal (18 months and older), and address of the new buyer.

The auction barn will tag the cattle for producers but estimates a fee of $5 to $7 is needed to recoup their costs. Lollis noted to producers “tagging at home is encouraged and could be more cost-efficient.”

Florida’s next steps are to expand to at least one more auction barn with hopes to distribute 85,000 EID tags to producers who volunteer to be part of the pilot and are willing to help test the market system.

Lollis expressed that there is a need for a tracebility system and electronic is the best method – he noted metal brite tags do not work.

But that said, he acknowledged that there are still many arguments within industry, including determining if calves should be tagged at birth or before entering commerce; determining if high or low frequency tags should be pursued, which would help minimize the need for commerce points to have readers compatible with both kinds of tags; and deciding if a traceability program should be mandatory or voluntary.

He called for the beef industry to “bypass the arguments and build a foundation.”

Texas’ take

In Texas, TCFA’s Wilson reported their traceability pilot project involves cattle organizations in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Florida and Kentucky. The project aims to capture data that would allow for disease traceback, but also is designed to share value added information up and down the beef chain “to see if that will incentivize producers to participate,” Wilson shared.

The four participating packers have agreed to share carcass data and participating feedyards will offer a $5 per head premium for cattle with an EID enrolled with value-added information in the project. Those participating in the pilot have a choice between high or low frequency tags. IMI Global is providing database management for the project.

Data being collected for the disease traceability portion of the project include EID tag number and date, origin of where animal was tagged and each movement thereafter (including the premise ID, physical address and GPS coordinates) as well as the owner name, phone number and email.

For the value-added portion of the project, additional data collected at the cow-calf and stocker sector includes date of birth, breed, pasture and supplemental feed information, animal health and performance products and dates, weaning weight and BQA program information.

At the feedlot, additional animal health and performance product information and dates are added along with feedyard performance metrics including average daily gain and feed/gain conversion. Packer information includes yield and quality grade, hot carcass weight and slaughter date. The exchange of this value-added information will be dictated by business-to-business agreements.

In October 2018, 15,000 head were enrolled in the system and another 10,000 are slated to be tagged in spring and summer 2019.

Additional viewpoints

Also participating in the panel discussion were Dustin Oedekoven, state veterinarian in South Dakota – a state that has 28 auction markets; Chelsea Good, vice president of government and industry affairs for the Livestock Marketing Association (LMA); and 2019 NCBA President Jennifer Houston, who owns and operates a livestock auction in Tennessee with her husband.

Oedekoven expressed that his state animal health agency gathers data as required under the Animal Disease Traceability Rule (ADT) that went into place in 2013. “It is working without a pilot project,” he said. Oedekoven noted that Bangs or silver NUES tags are used and have allowed successful traceback for bovine tuberculosis cases.

Oedekoven acknowledged that the current ADT system is labor intensive and has an error rate as high as 9%. He suggested improvements to the system should look at accuracy, timeliness and tagging younger ages of cattle (under 18 months).

Representing LMA, Good said they would like to see the current ADT program improved as well – including making sure customers are complying with the rule and having a better technology system that allows state and federal databases to be compatible with each other.

Good reported that some LMA member markets are interested in EID and participating in pilots. However, the markets are concerned about the multiple readers for multiple IDs that livestock auctions may need to have. She stated, “At some point the industry needs to select one.” Additionally she indicated that the infrastructure and readers for an electronic system should be supplied to auction barns.

Houston expressed, “Thinking of disease [outbreak] keeps me up at night. It’s not if, but when it will happen. A robust [traceability] system will allow us [the beef industry] to control things a lot quicker and regain access to local and export markets.”

Houston noted that dual readers may have some potential, but added, “It’s not fair to ask anyone to have multiple formats.”

In the closing remarks of the panel discussion, when the question was asked, “How do we get producers to understand the importance of traceability?” Wilson stated, “Can I use the word mandatory,” to which the room saw spattered applause from attendees.

“We’ve been talking about this [traceability] for 20 years….At some point in time NCBA and LMA will need to lock themselves in a room and make tough decisions or we will be here 10 years from now having the same discussion,” Wilson said.

He acknowledged that there are decisions that must be made as to how a system will work and which technology (high or low frequency) would be used, but concluded, “Folks, we are behind nearly every other beef producing country in the world [on traceability]. It’s difficult, but it’s not rocket science.”

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