PHILADELPHIA, Miss. — As the U.S. Department of Agriculture pushes ahead with a National Animal Identification Plan (NAIP), livestock producers in the Southeastern states will have a united voice to express concerns and possibly lead the nation in developing a standard program.

The national identification plan, which will allow for rapid trace back of an animal’s history as it relates to premise (location), has been a national initiative for years, but it has been fast-tracked by USDA in light of the confirmed case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in late December 2003.

A number of concerns are being expressed by livestock organizations and producers, including who will pay for the program and how confidentiality can be insured.

In the Southeast, an organized effort is under way to be sure the region and the organizations that represent producers have a strong voice in the development and adoption of the national program.

Later this month, representatives from 11 Southeastern states, from Louisiana to Virginia, will sign legal documentation to form the Southeastern Beef Network and hopefully put the states in line to implement a pilot program to achieve the goals of the NAIP.

The idea for the SBN is modeled after the Kentucky Beef Network (KBN), which is an umbrella organization that includes the state cattlemen’s association, the land-grant university, the state department of agriculture, Farm Bureau and livestock marketing associations. With funding from Phase I Tobacco Settlement dollars, the Network put in place a voluntary animal ID program, but with a twist. They consider the ID system a value-added program because growers also can voluntarily collect carcass and other producer information on their animals.

Last July, the KBN received additional money to put the infrastructure into their markets. This money can fund the purchase of the technology needed at sale barns, auction areas, and the software needed to protect and maintain the program.

In November, the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association asked representatives of the KBN to come to its state and conduct a series of meetings explaining the program to livestock market owners and operators.

“Out of those meetings came the realization all of us in this region have the same challenges: we effectively do business the same way all over this region,” says Jim Akers, an integrated resource management specialist with the University of Kentucky. “We want to make sure we protect the small cow-calf producers and keep them on an equal playing field with the big producers.

“There are varying levels of buy-in and involvement in different states,” explains Akers. “Right now the effort is to identify the key leadership in those states and get them to come together and form an entity like we have here in Kentucky that puts them all at one table.”

For every concern a producer could possibly have, the young SBN is keeping those concerns at the forefront of discussions. Just in the past few months, the SBN met with the congressional representatives of each state and with USDA officials in Washington and put together the proposal for the 11-state area to be a pilot region to test and design the national ID program.

Billy Powell, executive vice president of the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association, says cattle producers in the Southeast are 85 percent part-time producers with 30 head of cattle or less on their farms.

“Historically, on the national level, we’ve been left out (concerning input). The reason for that is a lot our own fault. If you aren’t at the table, then the people who are at the table can make the rules and you can be left out.”

Powell says even before the BSE case, leadership in the Southeast recognized that some sort of collaboration of states was necessary to insure the small producers were protected on such issues and program costs and confidentiality.

“Thank goodness the folks in Kentucky wanted to work with us,” he says.

“Our goal is to make sure that when animal ID comes it will be transparent to small producers and to the market,” he adds. “By working together, we have more clout and more ways to help the small cow-calf producers. Personally I think the SBN is the best thing that’s happened to the cattle industry in the Southeast.”

Lee Alley, retired state veterinarian for Alabama, says working together is the best way to answer questions and develop a program that works for all producers.

“We have to have common technology. The premise allocation has to be robust, large enough to handle monstrous numbers and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Alley. “We have to deal with security and confidentiality, but we have to do this. The consumer is going to make us do it.”

The first priority is to develop the premise registration systems in the states and get the ID numbers on the farms and get that system operational.

“There are going to be some massive educational needs and promotion of this program,” says Akers. “How do you participate? What does it mean if you are participating? How do you register a premise? Do you need more than one premise?”

Another aspect that requires immediate attention is getting the basic infrastructure in place at the state veterinarian level.

It’s too early to assure producers of who will have access to the information, but the message being sent to USDA is that growers must have the assurance of privacy.

Jim Watson, state veterinarian for the Mississippi Department of Health, says every state has questions, but the one consensus seems to be an agreement that the state veterinarians in each state should be the point of access for the information.

“Having seen what happened with the BSE case, I know I need access to that information, but we also need to be able to protect the information.

“We are asking for input from all producer groups,” he says. “We realize there is a huge number of people who haven’t had the opportunity to hear about this. We need to get the word out to the small producers.”

“If this is about animal disease, once we have a national system in place and we have livestock disease traceability as a mandate, by design the state veterinarian would be able to access information if indeed there was a need to trace a disease,” says Akers. “Our concept is that this doesn’t need to be some big body of information that’s just out there.

“It is going to take additional funding for equipment, software, possibly personnel, training and education of those state veterinarians,” says Akers.

“The database the KBN has operational is multi-species, but the reality of it is that animal ID is a cattle issue right now. We have over the past year put into operation a Web database that houses this information,” he says. “It’s a password-protected database that operates like on-line banking. You have an account in this database that houses your information. Therefore we have the ability to protect information and limit access to it.”

The SBN is optimistic its proposal will be accepted and producers can move forward and be “in the know” about the program at all stages.

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