It’s been several years since USDA rolled out the results of years of controversy surrounding a national animal identification system. But the USDA “bookend” traceability system that calls for identification of animals over 18 months of age that are moved interstate is in place, and has been since late 2012.
Of course, cattle producers have been identifying their animals in various ways ever since humans have owned livestock. And while ear notches and brands are still necessary and useful today, technology has improved to the point that animal identification can be a management information tool as well as an indication of ownership.
We surveyed BEEF readers recently to get a feel for your use of and opinions on animal identification. Here’s a look at what you had to say.
When asked what form of ranch-wide animal identification readers use, the majority, at 70%, use dangle ear tags. While that wasn’t surprising, what was surprising (at least to us) is that 47.2% use a hot iron brand. Given the general acceptance of branding as a permanent indication of ownership, our hypothesis was that branding would be more common.
Beyond that, 14.6% use freeze branding and 5.4% don’t use any form of identification at all. Another 18.1% say “other, “with most responses indicating that ear notches and EID or RFID tags are used (Figure 1). Totals add up to more than 100% because of multiple responses.
As far as why readers use ranchwide animal identification, 83.3% say for management and 70.5% say to indicate ownership. Theft deterrence was important for 51.6%; 26.6% indicate they do it for marketing; 19.1% to comply with verification or value-added programs; and 15.9% to comply with government cattle health programs (Figure 2). Totals add up to more than 100% because of multiple responses.
When it comes to individual ID, 87% say yes when asked if they have a system to individually and separately identify animals. Only a small minority, 13%, say no (Figure 3).
And again, dangle ear tags, at 93.4%, were the preferred method. Ear tattoos, at 22.1% came in second; RFID tags were next at 15.3%; metal “brite” clip tags came in at 8.6%; and “other” reasons notched in at 10.7%. Of those, branding was the most often mentioned method (Figure 4). Totals add up to more than 100% because of multiple responses.
Management was far and away the reason that readers use individual and separate animal ID, garnering a 91.9% response. Ownership indication came in at 54.5%, followed by theft deterrence at 32.7%, marketing at 31.2%, compliance with verification or value-added programs at 18.8%, compliance with government cattle health programs at 13.2%, and “other” at 4.3% (Figure 5). Totals add up to more than 100% because of multiple responses.
For those who don’t individually and separately ID their cattle, 51.5% say that brands and Bangs tags are good enough. Another 21.6% want to know who is going to pay for it, and 16.1% say who they sell their cattle to is nobody else’s business. Beyond that, readers are concerned with the confidentiality of their information (9%), potential liability from future buyers (7.5%), concern over the technology working properly (7.5%), the fact that it slows down commerce (6.7), and “other” (29.1%).
Most of those who clicked on the “other” response say they don’t see the need and mentioned the labor, time and effort required. “If the sell warrants tagging of our cattle, it will be done. Otherwise this ranch does not add any further stress, cost, etc., to the animal due to re-penning,” said one respondent. “You come brand them,” replied another (Figure 6). Totals add up to more than 100% because of multiple responses.
USDA’s current animal ID and traceability system, which has been in place since 2012, is a “bookend” system that calls for identification of animals over 18 months of age that are moved interstate. Of the readers who responded to the BEEF survey, 62.2% say they are aware of the current system, while 37.8% say they aren’t (Figure 7).
When asked if they would favor a national animal ID and traceability system that could track individual animals throughout their lives, 58% of respondents say yes, while 42% say no (Figure 8).
Of those who support a lifetime, national traceability system, 86.9% say it would be helpful in disease containment and traceback, 67.2% think it would thwart cattle theft and speed recovery of stolen animals, 64.7% say it gives the U.S. a better chance to enter more foreign markets, 60.2% say it will help with consumer transparency, and 57.1% say it will add value to their calves.
Only 1.8% had other reasons, but they were good ones. “Eliminate the guys swapping calves at the sale barns that might be PIs [persistently infected with BVD]. Have had it happen to me,” one reader says. “Put an end to trader cattle that have been in numerous sale barns,” says another (Figure 9). Totals add up to more than 100% because of multiple responses.
Of those who do not support development of a lifetime, national animal ID and traceability system, the majority, at 76.6%, wonder who will pay for it. Beyond that, 47.1% are concerned about data confidentiality, 40.4% say who they sell cattle to is nobody else’s business, 40.2% say brands and Bangs tags are good enough, 30.1% are concerned about potential liability from future buyers, 29.2% say it slows the speed of commerce, 19.2% worry if the technology will work right, and 15.5% say “other.” Of those, the biggest concern is greater government involvement in the cattle business (Figure 10). Totals add up to more than 100% because of multiple responses.
Digging deeper into the idea of a national animal ID system, we asked readers if USDA’s current animal disease and traceability system should be expanded to include all classes of cattle moving both intrastate and interstate. Not surprisingly, the results essentially mirrored the results in Figure 8, with 52.7% saying yes and 47.3% saying no (Figure 11).
As things stand currently, law enforcement personnel don’t have access to the data in USDA’s animal ID and traceability system. We asked the 47.3% who oppose expansion of USDA’s national ID system if they would support a program that includes all classes of cattle if it was used by law enforcement to recover livestock and prosecute thieves. Of that group, 56.7% say yes and 43.3% say no (Figure 12).
Clearly, those who oppose any form of expanded animal ID system are firm in their beliefs, just as those who use the technology see the benefits. Whether those lines remain as firmly drawn in the future as they appear to be now remains to be seen.