"Using the best available data, we found that if the United States actually needed this cattle tracking information, we'd be in a seriously poor situation," said Rhonda Skaggs, NMSU agricultural economist. "We need a better system for keeping track of live animal movements in the United States. Today, Mexico has a better system than we do."
The study, based on a two-year examination of live cattle imports through the international port of entry between Santa Teresa and San Jerónimo on the Mexican border, is among the first to look at live cattle movements in the region.
While it's increasingly critical to be able to know exactly where an individual animal has been and where it is now, NMSU researchers found that in general there's little actual tracking of live cattle, whether those cattle are coming into the United States from Mexico or Canada.
"In the last couple of years, we have seen increased interest on the part of governments worldwide in being able to track live cattle movements," Skaggs said. "Some of this has been driven by recent concerns in bio-terrorism, but it's also pushed by outbreaks of mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease in Western Europe."
Under an agro-terrorism attack scenario, the consequences of a widespread epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease – a highly contagious virus that attacks cattle, pigs and other cloven-hoofed animals – or similar diseases in the United States would be enormous, both socially and economically.
"The system in Chihuahua far surpasses anything we have in the United States and can be a model for us to attempt to develop," said Steve England, state veterinarian with the New Mexico Livestock Board. "When it comes to control of livestock movement in the advent of an act of bio-terrorism, Chihuahua has control, and we do not. The program Dr. Skaggs is working on is an excellent start, but needs to be expanded not only for import animals, but also domestic movement."
The 90-acre Santa Teresa port of entry, located 2 miles south of El Paso and 4 miles north of Mexico, can house about 30,000 head on an average day. The most modern of the nation's cattle ports of entry, Santa Teresa handles about a quarter of the cattle that enter the United States from Mexico, some 250,000 feeder animals destined for American feedyards.
Other border cattle crossings are located in San Luis, Ariz.; Columbus, N.M.; Del Rio, Texas; Douglas, Ariz.; Eagle Pass, Texas; Laredo, Texas; Nogales, Ariz.; and Presidio, Texas.
The Santa Teresa port of entry is in reality two facilities. In San Jerónimo on the Mexican side of the border, cattle are trucked from the northern states of Mexico, particularly Chihuahua, where they are inspected, tested and dipped, then moved across the border to Santa Teresa on the U.S. side, where they're sold and shipped.
Using data from the New Mexico Livestock Board and the Unión Ganadera Regional de Chihuahua, a Mexican cattle growers association, NMSU researchers were able to trace the cattle's path from desert homes in northern Mexico to declared United States destinations. "We're fortunate that New Mexico keeps these destination declarations," Skaggs said. "Other states don't."
The tracking information was put into a database, and graphics and maps were developed showing the Santa Teresa cattle's movement across the nation. "The majority of the cattle go to Texas, Colorado and several Midwestern states, but others go as far north as Oregon and as far east as Mississippi," Skaggs said.
Even in the available records, researchers found inconsistencies in record keeping, illegible writing and unidentifiable locations. Pinpointing final destinations on a map often proved difficult, because while shippers and truckers might be able to find rural feedyards, they frequently weren't listed on any standard geographic database.
"Only a handful of people might know exactly where the cattle went, but that wouldn't help in an emergency," she said.
Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, the project was supported by NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station. The study also received technical assistance from the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, New Mexico Livestock Board and Unión Ganadera Regional de Chihuahua.
Currently, NMSU agricultural economics graduate students involved in the prototype cattle-tracking system are continuing to quantify and describe the movements of cattle and beef products between the United States and Mexico, Skaggs said. The students also are analyzing cattle industry competitiveness between the two nations, she said.