Cattle Today

Cattle Today



by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D., PAS

Part 1

With little doubt it can be easily stated that few topics have caused more confusion and controversy in the livestock industry over the last few years than the debate over national or state mandated livestock identification. The entire issue has been discussed to the point of exhaustion but many producers and lots of ag professionals continue to have misunderstandings or simply suffer from great confusion over the program.

Additionally, a great deal of debate exists over the actual implementation and administration of the program, how it will ultimately affect producer profitability, the increase in paperwork for the producer and finally whether it constitutes an invasion of privacy.

This article is not designed to take sides in the controversy. Hopefully it will serve to clear up some misconceptions concerning the program. Finally we will also discuss how it may affect the producer and what details will have to be handled to successfully administer the program on your operation as painlessly as possible.

What is the National Animal Identification System?

First, like every governmentally administered program, it has to have an acronym for a name. As such the National Animal Identification System goes by NAIS, which no doubt to those in agriculture, overtime will become as commonplace as USDA, IRS or FBI.

Based on information from Breiner, et al, with Kansas State University, the NAIS is a national program intended to identify all agricultural animals and track them as they change locations, come into contact with, or are mixed with animals other than those from within their herd. The whole concept became increasingly of interest with world-wide and national animal disease events (BSE, foot and mouth) and as we conduct our lives and business in a post 9/11 world. We have discussed biosecurity in the past and the NAIS is a partial means of administering national biosecurity.

At this point in time, NAIS includes three components—premises registration, animal identification and animal tracking or tracing. Producers can participate in one, two or three components.

On April 27, 2004, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced the basis for implementing the NAIS — an animal identification and tracking system that will be used in all states and that will operate under national standards. When fully operational, the system will be capable of tracing a sick animal or group of animals back to the herd or premises that is the most likely source of infection. It will also be able to trace potentially exposed animals that were moved out from that herd or premises. The sooner animal health officials can identify infected and exposed animals and premises, the sooner they can contain the disease and stop its spread. Additionally, NAIS will enhance U.S. efforts to respond to intentionally or unintentionally introduced animal disease outbreaks more quickly and effectively. USDA's long-term goal is to establish a system that can identify all premises and animals that have had direct contact with a foreign animal disease or a domestic disease of concern within 48 hours of discovery.

The system itself requires the tagging of an animal with a small ear tag containing a radio frequency identification chip (RFID) which works the same as other RFID technology. The chip simply holds a number that can be associated with an account number. This is essentially the same as the credit card readers that you simply have to wave your special tag over so it can read the number stored on the chip. The system is then activated so it can pull up your account information. In the same way cattle tagged with RFID tags can be identified as they run through a chute as the user passes a reader with in a certain distance of the tag (this part of the technology is still under research to determine effective distance.)

As mentioned, at this point in time, the primary purpose, from federal, state and local government's perspective is to have a system in place that will aid in prevention of disease transmission and in locating the point where the animal contracted the disease. In some cases this could be the ranch where the animal was born. In other cases, it might be a stocker operation where the animal was grown out for a period of time. The one thing that producers need to understand is that if the system works correctly it ID's not only the farm or ranch where the animal was born but also each step along the marketing pipeline until harvest. Ideally that should include any sale facilities, order buyers and trucking companies as well. If used correctly and to its potential, the system can also track animal performance (gain, health, etc.). It could be used to help identify those ranches that consistently produce animals of superior (or inferior) performance. It can also be useful to identify animals originating from specific areas, through certain order buying companies and so on that have a history of poor or substandard health performance. From the regional identification standpoint, this could be useful in determining areas that possess unique nutritional characteristics that result in cattle with consistently suppressed immune response.

Already, many species in U.S. animal industries can be identified through some sort of identification system, but these systems are not consistent across the country. Tracing an animal's movements can therefore be a time-consuming endeavor during a disease investigation, especially if the animal has moved across State lines. Time, that in many cases, investigators do not have.

Producer Concerns

The NAIS has generated concerns among producers as related to implementation of the system. Many of these concerns stem from the USDA's Bovine Identification Working Group's recommendations to use electronic identification. The U.S. Animal Identification Plan Bovine Working Group has recommended radio frequency identification (RFID) as the technology to individually identify cattle. Understanding and implementing an electronic identification system for cow-calf producers is believed to be one of the greatest challenges of implementing NAIS.

To help better understand the perceptions concerning the program a study was conducted to evaluate where producers are in terms of implementation or use of animal identification. Participants were selected in the spring of 2006 from a mailing list of cow-calf producers with more than 100 head of cows. BEEF® Magazine provided the mailing list and a random sample of 1,000 producers was selected. A total effective mailing of 972 resulted in 522 completed surveys for an effective response rate of 53.7 percent. Producers from 41 states responded to the survey. 77.8 percent of respondents were over the age of 45 with an average herd size of 160 head.

Interestingly, a large majority of responding producers already use some type of ID system (~94 percent). Of the total respondents, 84.5 percent already use a visual ear tag. However, only 7.7 percent had already used the electronic ear tags (EID). This number was expected to more than double with 16.5 percent of respondents indicating an intent to use EID tags the following year.

Also, in an effort to offset some of the concerns, Bruce Knight, Undersecretary for the Marketing and regulatory programs addressed the National Cattlemen's Beef association at their annual convention in Nashville, Tenn. this year. Along with a status report of where the program stands currently, Mr. Knight emphasized several points:

1) NAIS is a voluntary system designed to protect animal health, protect producers' businesses, protect access to markets, and protect neighbors who share the rural landscape.

2) NAIS meets the need for a modern system that can enable us to respond quickly—ultimately within 48 hours when a disease outbreak occurs. This is a system that will work effectively for producers and all those in the livestock production chain.

3) NAIS is a voluntary system at the federal level. Participation is a business decision and the producer can choose if and/or to what extent participation is desired. Premises registration does not commit the producer to participating in the tagging and tracing phases. It should be noted, however, that while participation is voluntary on the national level, some states or regions, because of specific circumstances may require participation.

4) Confidentiality – Mr. Knight responded specifically: “We've had producers ask: Are you going to track my animals on my farm? Are you going to give out my private business information in response to Freedom of Information requests? Will other federal agencies have access to information about my operation? The answer to all these questions—and many more we have received—is NO. We have specifically built safeguards into NAIS to ensure that private business information is safeguarded. Animal identification and tracing information will be kept in state and private databases, not with USDA. It will only be accessed when there's a need to trace animals in a disease outbreak situation. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns has said repeatedly that USDA will protect farmers and ranchers' private information. We take our responsibility for confidentiality seriously. We will not betray the trust that farmers and ranchers place in us through NAIS. That trust goes to the core of the development of NAIS as a true partnership.”

Getting Started – Premises Registration

The first step in getting set up with the program, if a producer decides to is premises registration. Knowing where animals are located and how to reach producers is the key to rapid, accurate, and cost-effective disease response. Premises information helps first responders quickly determine the size and scope of a disease event and the resources needed to contain it. Producers who register their premises provide basic contact information. Registered producers are notified quickly when a disease situation might put their animals at risk. They then have the information and assistance they need to take action and protect the health of their animals. Premises registration is carried out by the States. USDA recommends that producers provide at a minimum the following information during the registration process:

•      Name of the entity (XYZ Ranch)

•      Contact person (John Rancher)

•      Full address for the premises (May be multiple depending on operation)

•      Contact phone number(s)

•      Operation type (production unit, market, exhibition, slaughter plant, etc.)

Registration, as noted takes place on the state level. For a complete listing of state contacts for premises registration information by state you can go to:

This directory provides contact information for all the states. Many states offer on-line registration.

Step No. 2 – Animal Identification

The second step in the process, should you choose to participate tagging your animals with the appropriate tags. Numerous tag companies exist which offer the EID tags. The following table is adapted from information found in the 2006 survey of the animal ID industry conducted by Beef Stocker USA ( these include:

Note that these are only the companies that provide tags. In the next article in this series we will discuss data management and include a list of those companies, in addition to these, that provide products and services for the animal identification industry.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a management and nutritional consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at (903) 352-3475 or by e-mail at [email protected] For more information please visit


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