DENVER, Colo. — About 10 years ago, two steers from southwestern Ohio were diagnosed with bovine tuberculosis at a Pennsylvania slaughterhouse.
That was the beginning of years of detective work for Dr. Tony Forshey, Ohio state veterinarian and chair of the National Institute of Animal Agriculture.
State officials determined the steers went out on one of two truckloads from an Ohio auction. Thirteen potential herds from Indiana and Ohio were traced and all the herds were tested with no positive results.
“We never did figure out where those cattle came from until five years later when a herd in Indiana broke with TB. We had lesions in two-month-old calves so that disease had been sitting there festering for eight to 10 years,” he said in an interview during the NIAA conference held in Denver April 10-12.
“The cost of tracing back is tremendous, amounting to thousands of dollars that we spend in time and effort. If they had just put a tag in (the animals’) ears, we would have known where they came from,” he said.
All 45,000 farms in Ohio with livestock must now have farm identification partly because of the devastation of the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus and porcine epidemic diarrhea.
Avian influenza devastated U.S. poultry flocks several years ago. Since then, Ohio established strict biosecurity rules and built a complete database of all poultry operations including backyard flocks to help officials find farms more quickly in the event of another disaster.
Producers do not like it and they are fearful of a livestock database but they should think about how much information from their Facebook accounts has been widely shared, said Forshey.
He added varying levels of animal disease control exist among the 50 states and some do not do a good job.
Michigan state veterinarian James Averill said an ongoing bovine tuberculosis problem since 1995 has forced that state to take strong measures.
Under state law since 1997, all cattle must have RFID (radio frequency ID) tags when leaving their premises.
It was not easy to implement but it has brought benefits to regulators, as well as producers, he said. Traceability is electronic and it is faster and more accurate than paper records, said Averill.
The state maintains two confidential databases: one for TB program data, movement permits and premise identification and another for information on interstate movement.
Recognizing that animal disease is a national issue, a volunteer cattle traceability working group was established with 45 state officials and industry representatives.
Traceability has to be industry driven and has to serve public and private interests. A recent study for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association showed more producers are warming to the idea.
“I think we have totally changed the mindset from, ‘you can’t tell me I have to tag my cattle’, to ones who have said, ‘this is going to help in a value-added way,’ ” said Forshey, a member of the working group.
The survey showed 65 percent of producers gave traceability cautious support but that does not mean they will sign on unless they understand they are serving a larger public good, he said.
Joe Leathers, manager of 6666 Ranch in Texas and also a member of the working group, said any concept must start with producer support.
“Producers are the ones who are going to accept it or reject it. That is being accomplished now.”
Glenn Fischer of Allflex, a company that offers livestock traceability tools, said the working group is not currently offering full traceability.
The group has considered the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency model where a dedicated agency handles the work, he said.
“Canada has found a model to do this driven by a model by industry with a Spartan staff that has done remarkably good work,” Fischer said.
There are also value-added opportunities within the Canadian system, he said.
While many agree considerable value could be gained from a traceability system, the debate has bogged down over small details like ear tags and tag readers.
“The biggest challenge we face is getting everybody focused and not chasing rabbits. For decades, you would have a conversation about the same subject and you would chase the same rabbit around the room and accomplish nothing,” said Leathers.
He suspects many cattle organizations will reject the working group’s final proposals out of politics because of the concern about what their membership thinks.
The question of database management worries many producers.
“Some producers do not want their private information in a federal or state level database,” Leathers said.
Producers would provide only a contact name, address and phone number for a level one database. To use the information to improve herd management or obtain market premiums, a level two database could hold birth records, genetics, health records.