May 5 , 2006
By Gene Hall
Young County cattleman Larry Pratt is not afraid of animal identification. In fact, he's already doing it. His method, however, is not the proposed identifier chips and electronic readers of a national system. Pratt uses ear tags, pencil and paper and a computer program to track his cattle.
"We tag and track our cattle as a normal practice," Pratt says. "It's part of our record keeping and herd management."
Pratt acknowledges the controversy over the proposed National Animal Identification System and understands the reluctance of many livestock producers to embrace it. He believes, however, that the industry will continue to move toward animal identification, driven by economic necessity if not by government decree.
"My herd here is a kind of first generation of the NAIS concept," Pratt says. "The radio tags would be a permanent record. I have a limited traceability already. I can see that the radio frequency tags might make it better."
The Texas Animal Health Commission has halted plans to move forward on the identification of premises, the first step in the proposed NAIS, at least temporarily. Farm Bureau policy currently backs voluntary animal identification and Farm Bureau supports the hold in implementation at the state level.
Pratt says that forces in the world market for beef are now driving the animal identification issue. Nations that have had problems with BSE have been reluctant to reopen their borders unless beef sellers can demonstrate the ability to trace animals.
"It's somewhat inevitable that we do this," he said. "The pressures by world animal health officials and the demands of the export market will force us into it."
Pratt says there's a practical side to having as many animals identified as possible. Contagious animal diseases of all kinds would be traced more quickly and contained. Some producers that have their animals identified might benefit if their livestock can be traced quickly and cleared as a source of any potential disease.
"Due to the steps taken to control BSE in this country, that is not an issue. But there are other things out there that pertain strictly to animal health. We're talking about brucellosis, TB and others. Foot and mouth disease is very contagious and if it comes here, we'll need the means to trace the animals and deal with it before it damages our industry," Pratt warned.
Pratt's system is a simple one, employing an ear tag with a brand number, a number that reflects the "buy sheet" that identifies the date and group of cattle bought. There is also an individual number unique to that animal.
Pratt says he can find information on an animal quickly. Electronic tagging might speed that along a bit, and it would cost a little more. It would not, he says, mean a great change in the way he operates.
"Even now, and certainly in the future, tagged cattle will have an advantage over local, unidentified cattle," the rancher says. "Really, having your cattle tagged and identified is no more of an invasion of privacy than going to the sale barn and saying `these are my cattle.'"
Pratt is not particularly worried about the federal government's plan to move forward with the NAIS, currently slated to have premises identified by 2008 and individual animals accounted for by 2009, but he understands why some producers are.
"I don't think the government wants numbers of cattle or wants to know which producer has how many and so on," he says. "They want to know species and where they are only when a disease problem crops up."
Pratt is a member of the Texas Farm Bureau board of directors and he is comfortable with Farm Bureau's position on NAIS.
"For now, it needs to be voluntary. Market forces are pushing us that way. Producers must be protected in terms of liability and that information has to be protected and private. That data should be for animal health use only and only seen by animal health officials when they need to. The database should be in private hands, not the government's and costs to producers should be minimized," Pratt says.
Pratt believes the day will come when it will be difficult to sell a calf without some means of identification. That's one reason he's taken steps to ID his herd. The other reason is that his own personal database is a valuable management tool that saves him money in the long run.
"Information is always a good thing to help manage," he says. "Good information is always a good deal for the producer. We've got to understand that in today's market this is as much a value-added practice as an animal health issue."
Pointing to a fine young heifer, Pratt posed a hypothetical situation.
"Her tag is 3P 1-2. That tells me at a glance what I need to know. Maybe someday she'll have a chip in that tag. Either way, if nothing ever happens to her, that tag won't matter," he says. "They take the tag and throw it away."
Going on with his hypothetical scenario, the Young County rancher said that unless there's terrorism involving the food supply or the accidental introduction of a contagious disease, most ranchers would not be affected by any identification system, either self-imposed or government-mandated. In a perfect world, the tags are just a marketing tool and a herd management mechanism.
"I'm involved every day in getting beef to market," Pratt says. "I have to keep consumer confidence in mind, though. As an industry, we have to respond to consumer desires and we have to demonstrate that we are willing to protect the food supply and protect our producers from liability."
Larry Pratt moves through his herd, absorbing information with a glance at the ear tag on every animal, making mental notes of decisions made and yet to come. For him, identifying animals makes value-added sense. He'll be doing just that in the days ahead, regardless of what the government decides to do about the controversial issue of a National Animal Identification System.