Someday soon, cows in the Yampa Valley won't be able to keep a secret.
Ready or not, computer databases are coming to Northwest Colorado's cattle herds. Some ranchers are ready, some are not.
A nationwide push to contain future outbreaks of infectious diseases in livestock will mandate that every head of cattle in the country have a permanent identification tracking system by Jan. 1, 2009.
"It is here and regardless of whether we like it or not, we need to prepare so that when the government adopts it, it feels like what we as livestock producers need to be doing," Colorado Brand Commissioner Gary Shoun said Tuesday during the statewide convention of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, held at the Sheraton Steamboat Resort.
A portion of the day was devoted to familiarizing livestock producers and feedlot managers with new digital methods of tracking individual cattle from birth to slaughter.
Identification tracking methods are being marketed already, and several devices were demonstrated inside a temporary corral at the foot of the Steamboat Ski Area this week. They range from bar codes to a retinal scanning for cattle. Other companies are promoting digital ear implants meant to embed a scannable ID number beneath the cow's skin.
The intent behind all this technology on the range is to allow animal health officials to quickly pull up information about a diseased cow on their computers. The digital history means they will be able to determine all of the individual animals it has been in contact with throughout its life.
Because all livestock producers and feeders also will be required to establish a "premise" ID number, officials will be able to track every place the animal has lived.
Some systems are even connected to GPS devices that verify exactly where an animal was the last time its ID was scanned into the system.
Daren Clever, brand inspector for Routt, Grand and Summit counties since 1990, said the gradual implementation of the electronic animal ID system will be a big change for livestock producers.
Clever is summoned to inspect brands every time a producer ships cattle. When the new ID system is fully implemented by 2009, he'll also be there to scan the digital IDs and record one more waypoint in the animals' journey.
"It's going to be interesting to see when and how it goes," Clever said. "My understanding is we'll still (enforce) the brand law along with it. In terms of disease control, it's a good thing. But as far as (sharing information) about your own herd, that can be another thing."
Kit Carson County livestock grower Joel Franz said he's not too keen on having information about his operation in a national database.
"I will probably be the last premise ID issued in Colorado," Franz said. "I see this system can be used to discriminate against animals and individuals for political reasons."
Franz said that today, when he ships his cattle to a feedlot or to auction, they remain relatively anonymous. The national ID system would change that, he thinks, and open up the potential for the meat-packing industry to intimidate or even punish small producers.
Blaine Evans, who ranches in North Park, said he has accepted the inevitable.
He figures the simplest way to ID his cattle is to get the task done when he gathers steers and heifers in the fall, two to three weeks before shipping them.
"That's when you give them their immunizations, so you've got 'em in the chute anyway," Evans said.
Clever said many of the new digital identification methods still need refinement. He knows of a rancher in Grand County who implanted electronic ear tags in all of his calves last year. The quarter-sized tags later got lost when the calves had rubbed their heads against a fence. In addition, Clever discovered the rancher had unintentionally put the IDs in several calves that belonged to a neighbor. The rancher had mistaken the cattle because their winter coats obscured the traditional hot iron brands on their flanks.
Many consumers may not realize that in states east of Colorado, livestock producers often are not required to brand their cattle in the traditional way. John Heller, with a company called Research Management Systems, was describing the advantages of his company's products at the convention in Steamboat. He said the relationship between livestock producers in Northwest Colorado and the brand inspector will make it easier to adapt to the new identification requirements.
"That's the crucial link we can grab onto," Heller said.
Livestock producers already are accustomed to fitting inspections into their annual routines.
Heller said in the future, ID tracking systems may allow individual livestock producers to keep track of the fate of their animals after they have left the ranch. They may even be able to learn such things as final carcass weight after steers have been slaughtered.
Dan Baker was representing a company called Optibrand at the convention. His company produces a scanner that takes a photographic image of the retina in a steer's eye to provide positive ID in much the way that a human fingerprint provides a "signature" that is unique to the individual. The Optibrand system is compatible with other means of electronic ID, Baker said. It can link a retinal scan to a bar code record, or even a photograph of a traditional numerical ear tag, he added.
Optibrand sells its retinal scanner for about $2,500. Anytime an individual animal is scanned in the future, the person doing the scanning, whether it's the original rancher or a feedlot employee in another state, to be billed 75 cents for the scan.
That business model allows the cost of scanning cattle at every stop in their lives is spread out among a number of businesses, Baker said.
The current price range for embedded ear tags ranges between $1.75 and $2.25 apiece.
Evans said he'll be able to absorb the cost of fitting his cattle with some form of electronic ID if the price paid for his cattle remains bullish.
"As long as the price of calves stays at $1.25 (a pound) I'll be OK," he said. "If it ever drops back to 65 cents, some of us won't be here to put the tags in anyway."
And as for the old-fashioned method of identifying cattle, Clever says cattle brands burned into a calf's hide aren't going away any time soon.
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