Alabama blazes trail for national animal identification

The recent BSE confirmation in a 10-year-old Canadian dairy cow has cattle producers across the country searching for an efficient and inexpensive solution to the national animal identification issue. But farmers may need to look no further than Alabama for the answer.

Alabama agriculture officials have recently initiated the Alabama Premises Registration System, a program designed to identify the origin and location of diseased animals within 48 hours by using a database to track farm animals from birth to market.

"This program provides an efficient and straightforward process of identification registration that will prepare Alabama to protect the number one industry in Alabama agriculture," says State Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks.

The first step in the registration process requires farmers to fill out a two-page form, providing the farm's location, owner and type of animals. No production data is requested. The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries then processes the information and issues the farm an identification number.

"People were apprehensive at first, but everything on the form one can get by searching the white pages," says Perry Mobley, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation Beef Division. "For those concerned with privacy issues, it's not invasive information, and the state veterinarian is the only person who can access it."

Mobley says most producers have embraced the new program with open arms. "So far, producers have been very proactive and willing to sign up. They realize the future benefits of having an animal tracking system in place."

One of those benefits includes a bigger paycheck at sale time. "In the future, the market will dictate that animals are source-verified, and producers will be discounted at the market accordingly. It will cost you money if your animals aren't source-verified."

Despite its initial reception, Mobley says the Alabama Premises Registration System is still in its early stages. "The department goal for 2005 is to have 75 percent of Alabama premises registered. Currently fewer than 1,000 of the more than 45,000 premises in the state are registered."

Many cattle producers, like Leo Hollinger of Wilcox County, firmly believe the premises registration system is a necessary first step toward national animal identification. "We registered our farm because we felt like it was an effective way of sourcing cattle for marketing and health. If we do have a national crisis, we need to know where the cattle came from, even if it means more work on the producers' side."

Mobley says the program's biggest challenge will be convincing all farmers to register, including those with few livestock. "There are many people with only a few chickens and a pot-bellied pig in their backyard, but we need them to register as well."

In addition to being one of the first states in the region to register premises as part of a national animal identification program, the state also boasts the goal standard for individual animal tracking systems — the Alabama Beef Connection.

Consisting of partners from Auburn University and other livestock organizations within the state, the Alabama Beef Connection was originally designed to boost the value of Alabama beef calves, says Lisa Kriese-Anderson, associate professor of animal science at Auburn University.

"The Alabama Beef Connection uses carcass data to gauge performance from calves tracked through the marketing chain by an electronic ear tag. Farmers pay only $2 per calf for a tag. They tell us who the animals were sold to, and we contact them and pay for carcass data."

After the December BSE incident in Washington, Kriese says the animal tracking program became more than just a management tool for farmers. "It afforded us a wonderful opportunity to be leaders in assuring our beef producers that there are options for animal tracking and that it doesn't have to be complicated."

Kriese says convincing farmers of the tracking system’s simplicity is one of the program's key selling points. "We're trying to reassure farmers that you don't have to be totally sophisticated to track your animals. You just have to keep some kind of records. Also, if the national ID plan is implemented as it is written today, the only time an animal has to be tagged is when it leaves the farm."

Though implementing a national animal identification system will take time, Kriese believes the slow pace will make the idea more palatable to producers. "If we can do it at a fairly steady pace with a goal, I think we'll get more producers on board. Unfortunately, if another BSE cow shows up again, we're going to be back on the fast track, and a lot of people may be weeded out, particularly those who aren't serious about it, who will not comply or who are afraid the government is getting in their business."

Mobley believes the possible union of the Alabama Beef Connection program with the Alabama Premises Registration System could form the perfect model for a national animal identification system. Still, making that dream a reality will not occur overnight, he says. "This is the foundation of the house, and we have a long way to go."

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