Government asks livestock producers to help contain diseases through national registry

On The Farm

October 02, 2005|By STACY KAPER

When a cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy - commonly known as mad cow disease - arrived dead at a Texas packing plant in June, it took two federal and two state agencies two months to investigate where the animal had been and which animals it had been in contact with before it died.

Now, in an attempt to contain livestock diseases within 48 hours of an outbreak and trace an infected animal back to its birth, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is asking livestock producers to register all farms, grazing areas, livestock markets, slaughterhouses and veterinary clinics in the first phase of a national registry that will eventually track animals, too.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture, which is administering the federal program, is hoping to voluntarily register all of the state's 8,200 livestock "premises" in the National Animal Identification System before premise registry becomes mandatory in 2007.

So far, 450 premises have been registered, said Sue DuPont, an MDA spokeswoman.

Eventually, the program will identify and track all livestock through a privatized database, which could mean more than a million animals in Maryland alone.

"It does seem kind of mind-boggling, I admit," said Jim Fearer, acting state veterinarian. "It's going to take some work. Logistically, it is a difficult task."

In Harford County, horses are the predominant livestock.

A 2002 survey of agricultural animals, conducted every five years by the USDA, reported 1,360 equine premises and 7,390 horses in Harford. The number of horses surely has risen since then, said David Almquist, a senior agent with Maryland Cooperative Extension for Harford and Cecil counties.

At Country Life Farm in Bel Air, the oldest thoroughbred horse farm in Maryland, marketing manager Mike Pons said he sees merit in a national registry.

Worrying about animal diseases does not keep him up at night, Pons said, but it is a concern.

"Every time you turn around, there's a new virus," he said. "It is a constant fear. You have to be vigilant as hell."

While acknowledging the benefits of containing animal diseases, Pons expressed concern that agriculture producers will have to pay for government-imposed requirements.

"It usually falls in the farmer's lap," he said. "That's unconscionable."

How much will the program cost livestock producers?

"That's the $64,000 question," Fearer said.

Premise registration, the first phase of NAIS, is free to the producer. The USDA has spent more than $50 million toward the program.

Animal identification and tracking from birth will not be implemented until 2009, and the USDA is still determining how best to do so nationally.

Livestock producers likely will be required to pay for federally approved devices that identify individual animals or birth herds, said Dore Mobley, a spokeswomen for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

While animal identification methods for livestock other than cattle are still being researched, the USDA has determined that cattle will be tracked with radio frequency devices, which might cost a farmer around $2.50 per animal, Mobley said.

Ned Sayre, a Churchville beef producer, said the devices are similar in cost to identification methods already in use. Standard clip-on ear tags cost around $1 each, and freeze branding, which brands cattle with cold irons, costs around $3 each, he said.

It is the additional equipment - such as a reader for radio frequency devices or databases - that makes the method more costly.

Darlington beef producer Richard Holloway, a co-chairman of the Harford agricultural advisory board and a member of the Maryland Cattleman's Association, said he does not know any farmers who use radio frequency technology.

The method might be cost-prohibitive for some livestock species.

"Radio frequency identification is a relatively high expense given the value of a sheep or goat," which might be around $50 to $100, said Diane Sutton, a USDA sheep and goat disease official.

So far, no radio frequency identification device manufacturers have been approved for the national program.

In the meantime, premises registration is the program's focus.

"It's just like in an election where every vote counts," said Marilyn Bassford, NAIS grant coordinator for the state agriculture department. "We are interested in the little guys and the big guys, no matter how small or how large the producer."

A letter from Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley endorsing the program was included in premises registration packets sent to livestock producers in recent weeks.

"I am encouraging all of my fellow Maryland livestock producers to participate in the first phase of the NAIS program and register their premises," Riley said in a prepared statement.

Many agriculture producers still are learning about the program.

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