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AFF Sentinel-Vol 20#06-It’s Not A Crisis -- Until It Is

Remember the "Cow That Stole Christmas?"

Steve Dittmer | AFF Sentinel

Colorado Springs, CO

Originally sent to subscribers 02/16/23

It’s not often one sees the NCBA president on the national news on the way home from convention but there was Todd Wilkinson on and Fox News before we got home and settled.

The NCBA convention put a big spotlight on the very real threat of FMD and the need for traceability capabilities equal to the task. And both cattlemen and the national news picked up on it. Wilkinson’s graphic way of describing how easy it would be for some illegal immigrant from a foreign country to drag it across our southern border on their boots, immune from any inspection or tracking grabbed the media’s attention.

As it should. This is a very transmissible disease and we have no up-to-date way of tracking its progress through the national herd. It was noted that Mexico has withdrawn from the North American vaccine bank.

NCBA has had a Working Group studying Animal Disease Traceability, Wilkinson noted.

FMD is a “real world threat,” endemic in almost all of Africa and is spreading through Indonesia. That country is the fourth largest human population on earth, is spread out over 17,000 islands and is the nearest region to Australia. That country is extremely concerned about FMD that close, as the disease spreads in the air for many miles, can be spread in meat and in manure. Maps of global air traffic and shipping container movement are not reassuring.

As the rule stands now, if FMD is found in any state, the rule requires all cattle movement in the entire country to be halted immediately for at least 72 hours. And that time could be extended. We’ve all seen how the country’s two-week shutdown for Covid extended to years.

In 2003, it took 14 days from USDA announcement of a positive test on a cow to DNA confirmation of the cow’s herd of origin.

Cattle movement would halt to all export markets and for a lot longer than 72 hours. More like many months.

That means no cattle into packing plants, no cattle in or out of auction markets, no cattle movement period. As was pointed out, we learned through the Holcomb fire what just eliminating six percent of the country’s cattle movement could do to the marketing system and prices.

Electronic tags would be required in all bovines 18 months of age or older. Of course, many branded and breed programs use them in younger and feeder cattle already.

We’ve seen pictures of state veterinarian offices with cardboard file boxes stacked up along hallways because file cabinets were full and office space was jammed. Hunting through boxes of paperwork is not something one can do in a hurry, even when every hour counts. Heck, we’ve found out how hard it is for presidents and vice presidents with staff levels we could only dream about lose track of important documents. Hunting for a thin colored copy of a health paper from months or years ago is a whole other challenge.

It is obvious that one thing that could alleviate some of the pain from an FMD discovery in the States is getting some provision into the rules that would allow for shutting down cattle movement in the state or a couple states, rather than the whole country. But that would entail being able to assure the government and the industry that rapid identification of the critters and their movement and location could be supplied.

If the traceability system proposed years ago had not been blocked by certain fringe farm and ranch groups many years ago, that system would have been in place, tested and commonplace long ago. Instead, one of the largest cattle producing countries in the world has barely progressed beyond metal ear tags and Big Chief tablets.

Actually, that’s only partially true. Some cattlemen on their own, participating in branded beef programs, breed programs, certification programs and various natural or specific characteristic programs have been using electronic ID for years. It speeds up identification, tracks more data instantaneously and provides more permanent ID than a simple ear tag. By now, most auction markets, many producers, feedyards, veterinarians and packers all have readers. Speed of commerce may not be perfect but it’s getting closer and common in some settings.

The supposed problem with naysayers before often centered on getting a premise ID so officials could find a herd’s location in case of trouble. As J.J. Goicoechea, the new head of the Nevada Department of Agriculture pointed out, if you’ve had any cattle tested for anything, you have a premise ID. Of course, if your state has brand inspection, you have a premise ID.

Over a decade ago, one of the not-often-talked about reasons for producers not wanting better, faster ID of cattle had to do with some people not wanting to have illegal drugs or carelessness with withdrawal times traced back to them. We would guess a lot of that has been improved upon by now. It was a dumb idea then. It’s a lot more so in today’s stricter regulatory climate and higher expectations of today’s production chain and consumers. Stricter control of antibiotics through veterinarian supervision would also limit those possibilities.

One of the holes in today’s system is that many inspection papers -- when you do find them -- list a cattle operation’s headquarters, not exactly a pinpoint location for cattle. Goicoechea noted that cattle bought at auction in Nevada in the morning can be up in the high country in another state -- California -- by noon and scattering for even higher ground.

Then there are what he termed “commuter herds.” These are cattle that come from California to Nevada for grazing and then back to California without any change in ownership.

Goicoechea views it this way: “Don’t put your herd in jeopardy. Consumers want it. We need it. Get something in this Farm Bill.”

In the Q & A session, it was noted New Mexico has 700,000 head coming in every year and the papers all list a headquarters location for the cattle, not necessarily their actual location.

NCBA has a number of factors they’d want to see in a traceability program. It wants a producer-driven program, managed by private entities, that protects producer data privacy and is equitable to all industry sectors. It should be compatible with common industry practices and operate at the speed of commerce. It needs to be credible in both domestic and international markets. And it needs to use electronic ID devices and use electronic data transfer.

As for costs, NCBA’s Senior Director of Government Affairs Tanner Beymer said USDA has enough tags to start and cost sharing could be available after that. Some states already provide them.

Wilkinson spoke like a man who has seen potential danger and doesn’t like what he sees.

“We have to get behind something that will keep us in business. Will FMD never happen? Don’t figure on it. Don’t put me out of business because you don’t want it [traceability].”

USDA is taking comments on the proposed rule on traceability until March 20, 2023.

Click here to comment online:

Click here to see proposed rule as published in Federal Register:

Next time: New twists on old opposition.

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