Montana ranchers say mandatory ID for feeder calves unnecessary

June 27, 2017

Categories: Agriculture, Agriculture, News, Plains Speaking

By: Gilles Stockton

Gilles Stockton, right, is interviewed by a reporter while on his ranch near Grass Range.

The message was very clear – no one at the USDA’s Animal Disease Traceability (ADT) Meeting in Billings on May 24 thought that adding feeder calves to the identification requirements was a good idea.

This message was delivered by producers in the audience and echoed by panel presenters who were chosen from many different segments of the cattle industry.

Joe Goggins, CEO of the Public Auction Yards (PAYS in Billings) emphatically said that requiring the addition of feeder calf IDs to the Interstate Certificate of Veterinary Inspection (ICVI) would clog up the yards, adding many hours to the process of loading semis after a sale. This sentiment was echoed by Dr. Brian Roe who does much of the veterinary work at PAYS.

However, if ID’ing feeder calves were to be required, all the panelists agreed that using electronic tags (RFID) was the only feasible way. The other panelists included an owner of a major purebred operation, the manager of Ted Turner’s bison herd, a rancher living within the brucellosis surveillance area, a Native American raising cattle on a reservation straddling the Montana-Idaho border, and Montana’s Chief Veterinarian Dr. Marty Zaluski.  All have experience with electronic ID systems and agreed that the technology now works pretty well.

You can comment to the USDA at https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=APHIS-2017-0016  by July 31 or mail:

Docket No.  APHIS-2017-0016
Regulatory Analysis and Development, PPD, APHIS
Station: 3A-03.8
4700 River Road, Unit 118
Riverdale, MD  20737-1238

Let the market do its work

But another message that came across very clearly is that there is no reason for USDA to require the use of RFID tagging because there are a number of “branded beef” programs available that use electronic tags for source verification. Let the market do its work was the overwhelming sentiment. If China truly cares to know where their beef steak originated, they can buy from one of these “branded beef” programs. A number of people in the audience expressed their frustration that some in our government and industry want cattle producers to supply Chinese consumers with mandatory source verification information but American consumers don’t get the same privilege. The Congressional reversal of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) was clearly a sore point.

This discussion for expanding ADT to feeder calves is coming in the shadow of a bovine tuberculosis outbreak in South Dakota. For the federal and state veterinarians charged with tracing back the identified infected cattle to the source herds, it was a difficult and sometimes frustrating job. Thirty-eight infected cows were identified at slaughter plants and 26 were successfully traced to the herd of origin. Back tags supplemented by brands were the main form of IDs that worked. But the point is that the current ADT system did indeed function, even though it was not always easy for the people tasked with the job.

This was confirmation of the opinion of one rancher in the crowd who pointed out that brands don’t fall off. One area of concern, however, are the slaughter plants which don’t necessarily feel a need to correlate the ID to the carcass.  When the hide comes off, it goes into a pile and the carcass speeds down the line. ID tags are supposed to go into a bag and follow the carcass, but this does not always happen as required and sometimes the wrong tag gets associated to the carcass of concern. This seems to be a major hole in the entire ADT system. Slaughter plants are in the business of converting live animals into meat as fast as possible and don’t necessarily care about being a critical part of our national animal disease surveillance system.

Federal meat inspectors needed

I have always believed it was a big mistake when this country entered into the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system which removed federal meat inspectors from the slaughter plants and gave that job to company employees. It goes too far to accuse all meat packers of lax meat inspection standards but we do know that one of the major packing companies (JBS) is owned by known criminals. It was not perfect, but we got better results from publicly employed meat inspectors and if we are serious about having an effective animal disease surveillance system, we need federal meat inspectors back in charge of actual inspection.

One other area of frustration, that a number of producers in the audience expressed, was that while USDA was asking us to shoulder the burden of enhanced ADT requirements, other parts of the government has increased the risk of disease introduction. Allowing fresh meat imports from Brazil, which has active pockets of FMD (Foot and Mouth Disease), was not popular and neither was the ongoing import of cattle from Mexico which has lots of TB. But FMD and TB are not the only risks. The worldwide movement of people and goods increases the risk of introducing something. One disease that was named is a new more virulent strain of Bovine Viral Diarrhea that our current vaccine does not address.

Not prepared for major disease outbreak

I wonder if USDA in putting together these outreach meetings on animal traceability missed the more important point that the question before us is – how prepared is this country to respond to a major disease outbreak? This is something for which those of us living out in the country raising cattle have no knowledge or expertise. We require and expect guidance from USDA because it is critical. All of us living in rural communities are on either the volunteer fire, ambulance, or search and rescue team. We do understand that if the fire truck has no gas in the tank, if the battery is dead, and if the crew is not up to date on their certification, that we are in trouble.

Being prepared for an emergency is boring and expensive. When I served on the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Animal Health, I learned that years and years of anti-government rhetoric and pledges of “no new taxes” has taken its toll on our national veterinary infrastructure. To be prepared for a major animal disease outbreak requires diagnostic laboratories with the proper equipment, rarely used reagents stored in the back of the laboratory refrigerator, and trained staff.  It further requires millions of doses of vaccine in storage, and teams available to deploy and lead the disease containment effort. Lab equipment needs to be updated, reagents and vaccines expire, and as personnel move on, new people hired and trained. It is boring and it is expensive, but the best animal identification and tracking system is useless if it is not backed up by a prepared public veterinary service.

This is my personal take away from the meeting:

  • Give us old guys a break. The industry is clearly moving toward electronic tags and computerized record systems. The younger generation that is taking over are tech savvy and probably will be using RFID tags and computerized records soon. USDA just needs to make sure that the numbering format used on the ranch will also work for animal disease traceability.
  • USDA can quickly beef up the adult cattle ADT system by using RFID tags with the Bangs vaccination.
  • Brands work for both verification of ownership and for disease traceability and should remain an official form of identification.
  • Identifying infected cattle at slaughter is the critical part of the disease surveillance system and if packing plants are not willing to improve their part in the effort, put Federal Meat Inspectors back in charge.
  • Preparedness is the key to a robust disease containment system. USDA needs to communicate with producers about their preparedness requirements and deficiencies.
  • Stop increasing the risk of introducing diseases by stopping imports of cattle and beef from countries with active FMD and TB.
  • Pressure Fish and Wildlife and the National Park Service to do something effective to eliminate brucellosis from wild bison and elk.
  • If Chinese consumers find that born and raised in the USA beef is good than let American consumers have the same opportunity. Restore the COOL label that says clearly in a font everyone can read – Born And Raised In The USA.

Gilles (pronounced like a “J” – zsch-eel) Stockton is a member of Northern Plains Resource Council and ranches near Grass Range.

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