cattle tag trace

A new nonprofit is looking to collect data on cattle with the aim of tracing potential disease outbreaks.

Disease outbreak in the agriculture industry is not a new concern, nor a new phenomenon. Once every few years, a sector of the livestock industry is threatened by an outbreak that could cripple production.

Over the last two years, the threatened sector in the U.S. has been swine as African swine fever threatens herds across the globe. But a group that started in Kansas is testing a theory that preventing the next major disease outbreak is possible with current technology — and they are starting with cattle.

U.S. CattleTrace, a cattle disease traceability initiative, began its official work in January to develop national infrastructure providing end-to-end cattle disease traceability.

CattleTrace started as a pilot program between several private industry cattle producers and the Kansas Livestock Association. The pilot project had funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but CattleTrace began its official launch as a private, not-for-profit corporation to securely maintain the data it collects.

“We want to build something that works for the industry,” said Cassie Kniebel, CattleTrace program manager.

After a few years in the pilot phase, CattleTrace expanded as more and more national partners came together to push the project to fruition. Now, 10 state organizations participate in Cattle Trace with 13 livestock markets, two backgrounders, 15 feed yards, and three major packers in Kansas providing the initial data to test the viability of disease traceability.

What is traceability and how do we get there?

Traceability is defined as: “the quality of having an origin or course of development that may be found or followed” but Kniebel has noticed that many producers have different ideas of what the word means to them.

“Some people think of transparency, which is different in my mind,” she said. “We want to know when and where that animal is at any given point in time.”

For some producers, the idea of traceability is joined with blockchain technologies, which isn’t CattleTrace’s goal. The company’s database consists solely of voluntary information collected about the location of cattle and what other animals each individual has come into contact with. As an added layer of security, the CattleTrace database can be accessed only by the organization and state veterinarians who are tracing a disease outbreak.

The data comes from ultrahigh frequency RFID tags. RFID, or radio frequency identification tags, have been prevalent in the industry for more than 20 years but have just now expanded to provide the capacity to read a large number of cattle quickly enough to make disease traceability a viable solution to containing outbreaks nationwide.

The three main RFID technologies available — low frequency, high frequency, and ultrahigh frequency — vary in range of use but ultrahigh frequency tags offer the ability to switch between how fast or slow you want to read in cattle for data entry.

“It offers that flexibility of use,” Kniebel said.

Part of the initial pilot program in traceability was to study the economic side. They wanted to know how much it would cost for every cattle producer in the country to purchase and implement ultrahigh frequency technology. They found that the ultrahigh frequency tags were essentially considered another way to protect cattle health.

“We see it as an insurance policy for the industry,” she said. “There is a big gap in the traceability system today. They can do them today, but it may take them years.”

As it stands today, Kniebel said the current system, which has to look at dozens of different types of tags ranging from RFID to simple brands, could take years to identify the origins of an outbreak.

“The ultimate goal is to slow down the disease spread,” she said.

Going national

Partners across multiple states got together in January to discuss a timeline for the organization. The pilot period for the RFID study will end in June, beginning Phase 2, which Kniebel called the transition phase.

Over the next two and a half years, CattleTrace will begin building infrastructure nationwide. It’s designed to complement national traceability systems that are already in place.

USDA’s current tracking programs extend only to certain types of cattle and other livestock. Kniebel said cattle over the age of 18 months and all dairy cattle are traced effectively but CattleTrace will focus on feeder cattle, which make up a large majority of cattle in the U.S.

One key aspect to the organization, Kniebel said, has been the implementation of an all-producer board of directors. That ensures that CattleTrace never loses what it set out to do — provide a service to producers, she said.

“I talk to producers of all ages and they’re all just kind of interested,” she said.

One major wrinkle in CattleTrace’s plan has been the implementation of the ultrahigh frequency devices. RFID technology has been around for a long time, but many producers simply cannot afford to retrofit their herd with new tags. This came to a fever pitch over the last several years as USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) outlined its goals to increase traceability in livestock.

APHIS proposed rules and regulations for those attempting to move cattle across state lines and had a provision in the initiative that specifically required producers to adopt RFID technology. This memo, which was released last April, has since been retracted due to several lawsuits by producers who declared it unlawful of the USDA to decide how they identify their cattle.

However, the lawsuits and the memo highlight contrast in producers’ and the government’s view on how to implement a faster, more secure traceability system nationwide. But Kniebel isn’t concerned about such confrontation, as CattleTrace is set up to be voluntary.

“Producers, in general, are more comfortable with trying to incorporate technology,” she said. “But in no matter what industry you’re in, you’re not going to have 100% buy in. That’s the benefit of CattleTrace because we’re on the front end of this.”

One major benefit, Kniebel said CattleTrace has the ability to accept feedback and implement change faster than government mandates. As it is a producer-led organization, Kniebel said they’ve already tweaked how they approach the traceability discussion based on feedback from their board of directors.

“Those guys are setting the who, the how, the when,” she said.

Kniebel said that if anyone is interested in learning more about the organization or how to join, visit www.uscattletrace.org.

Reach Reporter Jager Robinson at 800-888-1380 or email jager.robinson@lee.net.