The Bar U Ranch is home to about 300 cows this season, and Dick Coon knows every one of them. There's the Angus with the white face that chased him when he tried to vaccinate her...
BENGE, Adams County The Bar U Ranch is home to about 300 cows this season, and Dick Coon knows every one of them.
There’s the Angus with the white face that chased him when he tried to vaccinate her new-born calf; the old “gummers” with worn teeth, nearing the end of their reproductive lives, and the cow that gave birth to twins last year.
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Or was it the year before?
“My memory isn’t what it used to be,” the third-generation cattleman said with a chuckle as he steadied a struggling calf and affixed a green button to its left ear.
The button holds a microchip that isn’t prone to mental lapses. It will allow Coon to quickly and accurately identify every animal on the 9,000-acre spread he and his brother operate in the high desert south of Ritzville.
More significantly, one year after the nation’s first mad-cow case was discovered a mere 100 miles from the Bar U, the technology Coon is pioneering will allow officials to track animals with the brain-wasting disease and other dangerous ailments.
“With any of these outbreaks, the quicker we can get a trace-back, the better off we’re going to be,” said Coon, who’s participating in a regional pilot project for a national animal-identification system. “From my point of view, it’s just absolutely necessary to protect our industry.”
A single, sick cow from a Mabton, Yakima County, dairy rocked the beef industry a year ago as scores of nations closed the door on $3.2 billion in American beef imports. Consumers were horrified to learn that cows too sick to walk were commonly slaughtered for food a practice the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) eliminated within days of the discovery. The agency also changed several other rules to reduce the risk that people could contract the fatal disease from eating infected meat.
For the beef industry as a whole, though, the event turned out to be little more than a blip.
With no additional cases detected, Americans’ appetite for red meat quickly rebounded. And with U.S. borders closed to Canadian cattle imports, producers found domestic buyers for beef they would have exported to Japan or other countries.
But pressure is growing from trade partners, consumer groups and even within the industry for the USDA to make good on its promise of a system to track cattle from birth to slaughter.
The agency had been working on the program when the infected Holstein turned up at a Moses Lake slaughterhouse shortly before Christmas 2003. The mess that resulted when investigators tried to trace that animal’s movements revealed glaring gaps in the system of record keeping and propelled the effort onto a faster track though critics say the pace remains too slow.
“For a system that’s widely used in other parts of the world, it’s taking an amazingly long time to get it up and running in the U.S.,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Suspect cows never found
It took six days last December for federal and state officials to identify the Canadian dairy where the infected Mabton cow was born. And despite nearly two months spent visiting farms and sorting through sales receipts, feedlot inventories and other documents on 75,000 animals, officials never located 11 cows from the same herd, which could have eaten the tainted feed thought to be the source of the disease.
“If, in fact, those animals were infected, they probably got into the food supply,” said Ken Foster, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University and an advocate for better animal tracking.
With a system such as the one Coon is testing, each cow will get a radio-frequency tag that puts out a unique signal corresponding to a 15-digit identification code the bovine equivalent of a Social Security number. Each time an animal changes hands, from breeder to pasture to feedlot to slaughterhouse, the tag will be scanned and the transaction automatically entered into a national data base.
The technology is the same as in the key cards many workers use to open doors at their workplaces.
The goal is to be able to trace any cow’s life history within 48 hours, said Neil Hammerschmidt, USDA’s animal-identification coordinator. If a highly infectious disease such as hoof and mouth crops up, investigators also will be able to identify all other cattle that might have been exposed.
Many ranchers already have their own systems to identify animals, but there’s no national network that binds the patchwork.
At the Bar U, each calf gets a numbered ear tag shortly after birth, and Coon records its lineage in a small red notebook. He’s got one for each of the 30-plus years he’s been running the family ranch.
But when Coon sells his animals to a feedlot, operators sometimes remove the tags, and his animals mingle with cattle from across the region. During last year’s mad-cow investigation, officials destroyed more than 400 calves at a feedlot because they couldn’t identify the single calf born to the infected cow.
“We may have cattle from 50 different operations coming into our facility,” said Rick Stott, vice president of business development for Boise-based Agri Beef, which processes and buys 500,000 cattle a year at feedlots and slaughter plants in Washington and several other states. “At best, we could individually trace back about 20 percent.”
With 100 million head of cattle, nearly 1 million cattle ranches and almost 100,000 feedlots, getting the beef industry to change its way of doing business is a formidable undertaking, Hammerschmidt said.
“This isn’t something we can do in a short period of time.”
Off to a slow start
USDA is starting slow, first asking states to inventory all premises where cattle and other livestock spend time from farms to grazing lands, feedlots to packing plants. In Washington alone, the total is nearly 30,000, said Chris Spaulding, who manages the livestock-identification program for the Washington Department of Agriculture.
Washington will start asking cattle owners to voluntarily register premises in January. Spaulding estimates it will take two to three years to get most owners signed up.
Actual cattle tracking will start on a voluntary basis, too. Hammerschmidt won’t say when the full system will be operating only that it will take several years. Eventually, the agency plans to do the same thing for sheep, pigs, chickens and all other livestock.
Congress gave USDA $50 million to get the cattle-tracking program started, with much of that money going to help states develop premise-registration systems and fund pilot projects such as the one Coon is involved in.
Called the Northwest Pilot Project, it will involve 23,000 cattle in Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada and Hawaii.
Volunteers such as Coon are testing different types of tags and identification schemes, including futuristic eyeball scanners. One of their main aims is to test the technology under harsh, Western conditions, where weather and vast rangelands can make it hard for ranchers to get close to their cattle.
“You could have cattle you don’t see for six months you send them out and they come back with a calf,” said Stott, who’s leading the regional pilot program.
Many ranchers say branding cattle is sufficient, but USDA’s Hammerschmidt said each animal should have a unique number before it leaves its birthplace, not just the generic identification provided by a brand.
The 100 calves that Coon tagged last week were born in October. They’ll be ready to go to a feedlot by July and will be slaughtered the following February. Several slaughterhouses and feedlots are gearing up to participate in the pilot project, so they’ll be able to log the tagged animals as they arrive, Stott said.
“At the end of the day, we’ll go back and sit down with the producers and participants and say: ‘What worked and what didn’t?’ “
Pressure for tracking
Smith DeWaal says USDA should speed up the program and make it mandatory, as in England, Canada and other countries.
That may eventually be necessary, Hammerschmidt conceded. But in the meantime, market pressures could be far more effective than government rules in getting cattle owners to sign on.
Japan is preparing to lift its moratorium on U.S. beef imports, but only for cattle under 20 months of age, which are considered less likely to be infected with mad-cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy. That means companies that can prove where their cattle came from and how old they are will have an advantage, Stott said.
Within two years, hamburger giant McDonald’s will require much of the beef it buys to be completely traceable.
“Money talks, and producers will respond to those economic incentives,” Stott said.
A USDA task force estimated it could cost $500 million or more to set up an animal-tracking system. Much of that cost would be borne by the industry, which would have to buy tags and scanning equipment and change the way it processes animals. USDA would pay to maintain the national database, Hammerschmidt said.
Though some cattle owners balk at the expense, others say it will be easily absorbed, especially at a time when beef prices are high.
Coon spent $2.25 each for radio tags and $500 for a reader wand.
He already rounds up his calves when they’re about 2 months old to dehorn and dose them with medicine. So once his three border collies herd the young animals into a corral, it’s easy work to clip on the ID tags while each animal is immobilized in a squeeze chute for its two-minute workup.
“There’s no reason I couldn’t do this at birth, either,” Coon said, filling a syringe with a milky vaccine and yelling to be heard over a chorus of bawling from cows and calves unhappy with their brief separation.
He actually expects to profit from the new system.
A calf that puts on weight quickly and efficiently can sell for $300 more than one that grows slowly, he said. An automated tracking system will make it easier for him to gather and analyze information about his animals and use that to sharpen his breeding program.
“I feel like it will help me move to the next level,” Coon said.
Some ranchers worry that too much information may be a bad thing, leaving them open to consumer lawsuits if their animals turn out to be the source of a food-borne illness, like the Jack-in-the-Box E. coli contamination that killed several children in the Northwest in 1993.
But Coon thinks the tracking system will help protect his animals from disease and shield him from blame for food-safety problems.
Besides, his grandmother predicted high-tech tracking 25 years ago.
She clipped out a cartoon from The Wall Street Journal that showed cows with bar codes on their rumps.
“She said: ‘Just wait. This is how it’s going to be,’ ” he said. “And boy, was she right.”
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or email@example.com