It was, at one time, labeled the most important issue facing the cattle and beef industry. In the minds of many, it still is.

And, speaking at the 2004 Annual Convention of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA) in San Antonio, two of the experts most directly involved in developing and implementing a national animal identification system updated cattle feeders on what they can expect in the next year or two as the system phases in nationwide.

“The goal,” said Dr. Valerie Ragan, assistant deputy administrator with USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, “is to have the capability to identify all animals and premises that have had direct contact with a foreign animal disease, or any disease of concern, within 48 hours after discovery.”

Ragan said the first focus and the main priority at present is to get a standardized national premise ID system in place. “There have been premises ID systems is place for years all across the country as part of disease eradication programs. But they're not standardized. The numbering system in Texas is different from the numbering system in Florida which is different from the numbering system in Missouri.”

What happens when you have disparate numbering systems, she said, is you can't track animals electronically across state lines. You have to do it all by paper.

“So what we're doing is converting from these old numbering systems to a new, standardized, national numbering system that's compatible across the country and will allow different systems to talk to each other.”

USDA plans to accomplish that through its National Animal ID System. For the past several years, an industry coalition has been developing the U.S. Animal Identification Plan (USAIP). “We've taken the data standards in the USAIP and adopted them as part of the National Animal ID System,” Ragan said. That system will be tested in a number of pilot projects nationwide, including one in Texas and Oklahoma.

The reason premise ID is important, she said, is because it forms the foundation of the national system. “When you're trying to track a diseased animal or exposed animals, the main thing that you really need to be concerned with is where that animal is, what other animals have been exposed to it, and where those other animals are now. So the bottom line is location. We're trying to get the system in place to be able to very quickly get to a location of concern.”

In Texas, the push is to get the Texas-Oklahoma-Osage Nation Animal Identification pilot project up and running, said Dr. Bob Hillman, Texas state veterinarian and executive director of the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC). The first phase of that project will be to register the locations that have volunteered to participate.

“We intend to include all segments of the cattle industry in the project,” Hillman said, to test the ability of the system to identify and track animals from farms and ranches to order buyers, livestock markets, feedyards and even sales to a neighbor down the road.

“Also, there will be a component for identifying and tracking animals from markets and order buyers to their next destination, be that a feedyard or stocker operation. And we will have a component to identify feedyard cattle and track them to a slaughter facility.”

Once the Texas Animal Health Commission has the infrastructure in place and has its premise ID system up and running with the pilot project cooperators, then they will begin registering other premises in the state beginning in 2005. “We need to get as many premises registered as we possibly can during the next year,” Hillman told cattle feeders. “We anticipate, with the number of premises we have in Texas, it's going to take two or more years to get everybody registered.”

The next step after premise registration is animal identification. “As soon as premises are registered, then producers, if they choose to, can begin using the radio frequency identification (RFID) tags,” Hillman said. Some producers are using the tags already and that will expand as more producers come on board in the next few years.

Hillman told the more than 500 cattle feeders attending the TCFA convention that third-party service providers, such as tag companies and data management companies, will be utilized to help collect movement data that the state and federal animal health agencies can access to assure that the tracking system works effectively. And he said he intends to make premise registration as painless as possible.

Producers can register on a Web page. “We also anticipate having a hard copy, a card or one-page sheet that a producer can fill in and drop in the mail box. And they can call our office.”

Hillman said the big question in producers' minds is when the system will become mandatory. “The talk is probably 2008 before we have sufficient infrastructure in place to realistically think about a mandatory program.”

In the meantime, however, both state and federal agencies will work hard to test and roll out a voluntary program to allow cattlemen to do an even better job of producing the wholesome and nutritious beef that consumers worldwide demand.