U.S. producers prefer simple traceability solutions

The American cattle industry recognizes the public benefits but worries about added costs to businesses

DENVER, Colo. —The technology behind livestock traceability systems can be mind boggling, yet in the real world, most producers and supporting industries need a simple approach.

“As an auction owner-manager I would like to stay in the 1880s,” said Ken Perlich at the National Institute of Animal Agriculture annual meeting held in Denver from April 10-12.

“Traceability has to be workable and it does not have to be a Cadillac system. That is not a failure, it is knowing where your limits are,” said Perlich, who is based at Lethbridge.

Building a traceability system is difficult and expensive. An effective animal disease outbreak management system is needed for the public good, but when it comes to product specification, source verification and market access, the private sector should look after it, Perlich said.

When Canada implemented its system in 2001, auctions turned into tagging stations. Auctions charge for the service but they would rather not do it because it requires more time and work.

In the United States, Chuck Adami of Equity Livestock in Wisconsin agreed there are public benefits but he also worries about added costs to businesses.

Equity Livestock has 14 outlets in the U.S. Midwest and handled 700,000 cattle last year.

“We are concerned about the technologies that are going to be required. Specifically, we are concerned that we may have to deal with more than one technology,” Adami said.

About half their business is selling dairy cattle.

Individual identification is commonly used for breeding and management. Large dairies of 200 head or more use electronic identification while smaller ones use dangle ear tags.

“There is little to none of any ID on baby bull calves coming to market in the first few weeks of life,” he said.

Few producers see the value of tagging a week-old bull calf, while others do not see the point in identifying a cull cow raised on a single farm and then going straight to slaughter.

This company tags all the cattle that arrive at the auction barns rather than after the sale because they do not know beforehand which animals are leaving the state. Identification is required for interstate movement.

In Canada, all dairy calves must be tagged within seven days of birth or before the animal leaves the farm of origin, whichever occurs first. Any calves born on farm and destined for the beef industry may be identified with an approved radio frequency identification (RFID) ear tag, except for provinces that require double-tagging.

At this time, the U.S. requires identification for only those animals older than 18 months but there is nothing for feedlots.

“We are vulnerable here. There are a lot of cattle moving and a lot of those cattle are not traced,” said Jim Lovell, who oversees feeder cattle procurement at Bartlett Cattle Company in Texas.

A small feedlot may receive only a load or two a week but a large corporation with a capacity of 500,000 head must buy 2,400 head every day to maintain capacity.

They do not know where the cattle came from, what other animals they were mixed with or what diseases they may have been exposed to.

In response, the Texas Cattle Source Verification Service has been set up to quickly trace cattle electronically to contain incidents.

The state wants a functioning and voluntary source verification service in place by January 2020 for disease traceability and possible value-added information.

There has been pushback from other states that are predominantly cow-calf and ship cattle to Texas feedlots.

“If we can find some way through this system that we can create incentives, then I think we can get more people to buy in,” he said.

On a smaller scale, Roger Koberstein has been an early adopter of electronic identification for the last 10 years.

His first goal was to make sure all his animals were tagged because they were spread across two ranches in Nebraska and Colorado. He wanted to know where every cow was at any time.

“I see it as an animal disease traceability thing. We are working with two different states and needed to be able to track animals,” he said.

Disease traceability was the first priority but they have added full tracking from birth to the consumer.

He sells the beef from about 500 head to grocers and restaurants and has set up a labelling system where a customer can scan beef packages from his operation and learn all the details about the animal.

All calves are tagged at branding with electronic tags and he keeps track of them throughout their life cycles.

They use ultra-high frequency and low frequency tags.

Koberstein also has an app on his smartphone and iPad so he can select which data he wants to send to the processor, such as gender, weight, birth date and other relevant information. All the bulls and heifers are given ultrasounds and that information is attached to each animal’s numbers. In return, the packer shares the carcass data so the producer can improve breeding decisions.

He admits it sounds like a gimmick but he is experiencing growing demand for his beef because his name is on the menu at about 15 restaurants in the region.

He is also involved with show cattle in local fairs and the National Western Stock Show held in Denver.

In northeastern Colorado, local fairs have placed electronic ID tags on show goats, sheep and cattle since 2009.

“They have learned they are not as invasive as everybody thinks,” he said.

The information can be attached to transportation manifests. If animals go direct to slaughter after a show, they are tested for drug residues and that information can be tracked back to the offenders through the identification numbers.

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