April 17, 2013

USDA starts new program to track farm animals

M.L. Johnson / The Associated Press

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This U.S. Department of Agriculture photo shows a cow with ear tags at a dairy farm in Lake Mills, Wis. The new livestock identification program is mandatory but applies only to animals being shipped across state lines, and it gives states flexibility in deciding how animals will be identified.


Diederichs and his partners, who have about 5,400 cows split between farms in Malone and Poy Sippi, began using them eight years ago in part because they save time. Workers with hand-held devices can scan the tags and immediately pull up animals' birth, medical and other records.

The tags also are important as companies like McDonald's want to know where their food came from and be able to trace it back, Diederichs said, adding, "I think that's going to be the bigger push" for others to switch.

The federal rules allow two states to agree on alternative forms of identification, such as brands, for use with animals shipped between them.

South Dakota rancher Kenny Fox said this is an improvement over the earlier program, but he still believes the federal government should recognize brands. Ear tags can fall off, but brands are a permanent mark of ownership, he said. And brands can be registered and assigned a number in computer systems so that they can be quickly tracked back to a farm or ranch.

Fox, the animal identification committee chairman for R-Calf USA, an advocacy group for ranchers, said the program won't mean a big change in practice for him. He has about 500 cows plus their calves in Belvidere, S.D., and already tags his cows as part of a program to control brucellosis, a disease that can cause pregnant animals to miscarry. But he also brands his cattle because the state recognizes brands as proof of ownership.

"It has been very beneficial to our operation," Fox said. "In the past, the inspectors have found three, four animals that belong to me that were mixed up with other people's livestock."

It would be nice, Fox said, if he could use brands for both livestock tracking and proof of ownership. But he added, "I'm thankful they didn't keep using the (earlier program). It just wasn't going to work out here in this country."

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