Guest opinion: Do we need animal disease traceability tags in feeder calves? – Billings Gazette, May 12, 2017

May 12, 2017

Categories: Agriculture

By Gilles Stockton
Northern Plains Resource Council

USDA/Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is hosting a public meeting in Billings on May 24 to make the case for identifying feeder calves in interstate commerce, in addition to cattle more than 18 months of age (current Animal Disease Traceability rules). April and May are critical and busy months on farms and ranches and most people are probably not paying much attention to the USDA.

Attending one of these sessions may not be your highest priority. That might be a mistake.

As you may recall, not so long ago USDA proposed the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) which would have required an electronic RFID tag to track all farm animals from birth to death. That hit a nerve and producers across the nation said “no thank you!” Instead we compromised on the current disease traceability system, but APHIS has not given up on a national system. Adding feeder calves to disease tracking system is a step in that direction.

National ID unworkable, too expensive

Although I personally question the need to identify feeder calves and feel that a national identification type system would be unworkable and too expensive, in addition to having limited practical utility, the issues at stake are important. I served on the Secretary’s Advisory Committee for Animal Health for five years where I got to know many of the senior veterinary staff at APHIS. They are experienced professionals, and like all people who take pride in their work, they want the best tools available. A comprehensive electronic animal identification system is, in their opinion, one of those tools.

The question is what level of animal ID constitutes an actual workable program that is also not overly expensive, not labor intrusive, but still gives us a high level of protection from disease epidemics? Last year’s outbreak of Bovine Tuberculous in South Dakota tested the current system. The outbreak was detected at a slaughterhouse and traced by the back-tag, and it worked.

Even more threatening, Foot and Mouth Disease would be an immediate emergency upon outbreak. This is the underlying reason that APHIS feels an expanded animal ID system is needed. Although an disease tracing system will most certainly be necessary to corral and stamp-out a foot and mouth disease outbreak, I do not believe that traceability system will actually be useful in preventing the initial infection and or its spread.

Multi-national meatpackers protected

Ironically, USDA has certified South American countries with active foot and mouth disease infections to export fresh beef to the U.S. Rather than the USDA increasing inspection and rules for infected countries, they are asking American ranchers to increase our costs and workload by placing ID ear tags in feeder calves. While one does not eliminate the need for the other, it is galling that our government is more concerned about expanding international trade opportunities for multi-national corporations than protecting a critical domestic industry.

In Montana we already live under the strictest ADT requirements in the nation. Adding feeder calves to those requirements will tighten things even more, especially if you ship calves to a state that does not accept brands – which is most of them.

Identifying feeder calves will be a lot of work and expense for a program is of dubious usefulness. We have yet to see a fact-based analysis from USDA that shows why additional, mandatory traceability requirements are needed to prevent disease outbreaks or to expand trade possibilities.

Protecting our livestock from disease outbreaks is a serious matter and deserves the attention of everyone who raises cattle. It’s worth your time to show up at the APHIS workshop at the Hilton Garden Inn in Billings on May 24.

Stockton is part of the Northern Plains Resource Council.

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Billings, Montana 59101
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