040214 Cattle-ID System Gets First Test

February 22, 2004

Springfield, KY - Farmers crowded three deep on a dusty plywood floor above the sales ring at the Washington County Livestock Center, watching the state's first cattle auction with electronic identification scanners.

They didn't see anything they hadn't seen before.

Two attendants prodded cattle into the center of the ring. The auctioneer's singsong chant echoed through the building. Men in work shirts and baseball caps bid on and bought cattle.

The only difference: Each animal wore an almond-sized ear tag emitting a radio signal. As the cattle left the sales ring, they passed through a steel portal with sensors that scanned the tag and sent the data to the auction house's computer network.

The information would later be transmitted to a central database. If a serious disease were to break out, officials could mine the data to discover an animal's birth farm.

"It's not going to disrupt a normal sale day," said Jeff Settles, a Kentucky Beef Network agent whose territory includes Bullitt and Jefferson counties. "If farmers leave here saying, `Man, I didn't see anything. I'm disappointed,' then we've done what we set out to accomplish."

After a single case of the brain-wasting mad cow disease was discovered in Washington state in December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered all states to have a cattle-tracking program in place by July 2005.

Under the federal requirement, states must be able to trace back a cow's movement within 48 hours. But even before the mad-cow scare, Kentucky, the biggest cattle state east of the Mississippi, was taking steps to monitor livestock from the farm to the stockyard and eventually the slaughterhouse.

Since 2001, the Agricultural Development Board has allocated $2 million in matching funds to the state's livestock markets to buy scanning equipment and upgrade existing software.

An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 cattle in Kentucky have received the ear tags, which cost $2 each, said Jim Akers, a University of Kentucky beef specialist.

The galvanized steel scanning portal is a bigger investment. Resembling an airport metal detector, the Springfield gate is anchored into the concrete and padded with nonslip flooring. The cost: $3,000.

The system demonstrated in Springfield won't go into place immediately at all Kentucky auction houses. Akers said the purpose of yesterday's exhibition was partly to alleviate farmers' concerns about the electronic identification system.

"The computer system doesn't operate any differently than it did before. The flow of the livestock is no different than it was before other than the fact that we have had to tag some animals (at the auction house), which I don't like," Akers said. "We've got to get them tagged before they get here. But we've got to teach the farmers that it's in their best interest to do that."

One challenge is handling heavy volume. In many foreign countries using similar tracking technology, cattle are traded privately instead of at public auction, Akers said.

Thousands of cattle routinely pass through Lexington's Blue Grass Stock Yards each week.

Akers said officials are working with vendors to develop scanners to handle the traffic at larger markets. He believes auction houses the size of the Springfield market could easily implement the scanning system used yesterday.

"Our effort is to maintain as much of the structure of the way this industry operates as we possibly can. Because if we create a system that's difficult or expensive, we'll put a lot of these little guys out of business. And our whole goal is to keep them in business," he said.

Charles Wright, a Springfield farmer who keeps about a dozen cows and a bull, watched the auction yesterday with interest. He recently began tagging his animals.

"I think it'd be a wonderful thing, because if someone got sick on this beef, you'd know whose farm it came from," he said.

Campbellsville cattleman Kenneth Taylor hasn't yet tagged any of the 90 cows on his 250-acre farm.

"I wouldn't mind paying it if the cattle sold better," he said.

For many cattle farmers, at $2 per tag on a 500-pound steer that would sell for about $500, the cost is tolerable.

Cattlemen in other states see Kentucky's tracking system as a model. Georgia, Ohio and Tennessee farmers were on hand for yesterday's demonstration, as were representatives from the offices of Republican Sen. Jim Bunning and Democratic Rep. Ken Lucas, said Dave Maples, executive vice president of the Kentucky Cattlemen's Association.

Kentucky's 46,000 cattlemen are still waiting for the USDA to announce specific guidelines for a national system. That could include other ways to track livestock, such as DNA or retinal scanning.

"What we're just trying to show them is that we've got something that will work. It's not going to cost a bunch," Maples said.

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer is expected to appoint an animal identification working group in the next month to decide how to implement the statewide tracking system.

Farmer is requesting $300,000 from the General Fund specifically for the ID program, said Patrick Jennings, deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

Because the USDA has not yet issued its regulations, "we don't know where we most need to devote our funds," Jennings said.

Until the mad-cow case was discovered, cattle farmers were enjoying a boom year for beef. A resurgence in beef due to high-protein diets and a ban on some Canadian imports helped push cattle prices higher.

Strong sales in Kentucky were responsible for a 5% decline in the state's Kentucky's cattle inventory to 2.32 million last year.

Source: The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Ky)


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