Charlene M. Shupp
Special Sections Editor
LANCASTER, Pa. — When the U.S.’s first case of mad cow disease or BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) was discovered on Christmas Eve 2003, suddenly a national animal identification program rose to top priority for animal health. In the years since, the national program has struggled in its efforts to meet the needs of consumers and producers.
Steve Hershey, a dairy farmer from Manheim, addressed the April Agriculture Issues Forum here last week on how new animal identification technology has benefited his farm and where the National Animal Identification System, or NAIS, is at today.
Hershey told the audience at the Farm and Home Center that since his childhood days on the family’s century-old dairy farm he has been a lover of animal records. In a time before computers, he tracked the production of his father’s cows by plotting the monthly production records on a graph. He said the first drive for animal identification came in the form of a visible identification to avoid cheating on milk testing and brucellosis testing.
The identification solution was the small metal tags that grace cow’s ears. The problem was the cows could lose the tags easily and they were hard to read.
Also, there was not a sound record keeping system of what farms were issued what numbers. If a problem arose in a slaughterhouse, the only information that could be verified was the state where the cow was born.
The Hershey family moved to RFID (radio frequency I.D.) tags in 2004 as part of a pilot project from DHIA.
“Animal tracking is something of a concern worldwide,” Hershey said. “Especially in America because of how much animals move.”
To highlight the importance of accurate tracking, he cited a hypothetical example of a diseased animal at the Farm Show that is not discovered until after the show and all the animals have returned to their farms or moved to the next event.
Since the first case of BSE, animal tracking has had mixed results. The first BSE cow’s herdmates and offspring were relatively easily found through tags. However, two subsequent cases in the U.S. were not as easily tracked because of the failure of sound recordkeeping at the farm.
The plan was to give every animal location a premises identification number and the animals RFID tags so the U.S. and state agriculture departments could perform a traceback on all diseased animals within 48 hours.
However, as Hershey has found out, the issue has struck an emotional chord with some livestock and horse owners. Most people he said are mainly concerned with privacy. It’s a concern he believes is misguided.
“We need to make sure that people get the correct information” about NAIS, he said, noting that much of the information on the Internet regarding the proposed programs is incorrect. However, if people are performing a simple search it could be the misleading information that they read and base their opinions on.
Hershey concluded there are legitimate concerns out there and that armers need to be upfront and address them.
“Let’s just face it, there is no such thing as privacy in America anymore,” he said. His take home message about technology is how the information is used. The RFID tags, he said, utilize the same computer scanning technology as the Easy Pass System on the Turnpike. The turnpike commission is considering ticketing Easy Pass users that reach their destination “too fast” based on the mileage traveled. A recent lawsuit by a Pittsburgh couple claimed that a satellite imaging program has reduced the value of the home — however, anyone can go to the county assessor’s Website and search their address and discover the price paid for the house and the county’s rating on the residence.
While Pennsylvania has a premises ID program, the overall national program has stalled. Species have been broken down, Hershey said, with cattle receiving the highest priority; goats, swine and chickens medium priority, and horses and sheep low priority.
USDA “has backed off on their animal ID program. It is not as ambitious,” he said. Instead of forcing a farm to use RFID tags, they are asking for an animal identification program that enables a tracking of animals either by metal tags, breed association ID or RFID.
Technology in identification will be driven not by animal tracking, but by herd management needs, according to Hershey. RFID tags can help farmers with tracking cow production, sorting and recordkeeping.