Farmers chafe at federally mandated animal-tracking system

Plan seen to hurt small producers

Email|Print| Text size + By Nicole Gaouette
Los Angeles Times / January 27, 2008

WASHINGTON - After days of parading around her beefy black steer in the dung-scented August heat at the Colorado State Fair, Brandi Calderwood made the final competition. For months, the 16-year-old had worked from dawn to well past dusk, fitting in the work around school, to feed, train, and clean her steer. But just before the last round, when the animals are sold, fair officials disqualified her.

They alleged that Brandi had not properly followed a new and controversial rule that requires children to register their farms with a federal animal-tracking system. After heated words, Calderwood and her family were told to leave.

"Emotionally she went through the ringer and didn't get the honor of showing in the sale. For a 16-year-old, that's a big deal," said Cathy Calderwood, Brandi's mother.

A Bush administration initiative, the National Animal Identification System is meant to provide a modern tool for tracking disease outbreaks within 48 hours, whether natural or the work of a bioterrorist.

Most farm animals, even exotic ones such as llamas, eventually will be registered. Information will be kept on every farm, ranch, or stable. And databases will record every animal movement from birth to slaughterhouse, including trips to the veterinarian and county fairs.

But the system is spawning a grass-roots revolt.

Family farmers see it as an assault on their way of life by a federal bureaucracy with close ties to industrial agriculture. They point out that they will have to track each individual animal while vast commercial operations will be allowed to track whole herds.

Privacy advocates say the database would create an invasive, detailed electronic record of farmers' activities.

Despite the administration's insistence that the program is voluntary, farmers and families, such as the Calderwoods, chafe at the heavy-handed and often mandatory way states have implemented it, sometimes with the help of sheriff's deputies.

The result is a system meant to help farms that many farmers oppose.

"It's totally ridiculous," said Joaquin Contente, who oversees 1,700 Holsteins on his Hanford, Calif., dairy farm. Contente said existing regulations in California and other states meant his cows and their movements were well documented.

"We already have a good paper trail. It will be more of a burden for the small-to-average producer," said Contente, who worries about the expense for an average-size farm such as his.

Run by the US Department of Agriculture, the system is meant to help combat threats such as avian flu and mad cow disease.

Cattle groups were working on a registration system when, in 2003, a mad cow disease scare in Washington state set the industry on edge. Foreign beef trade stopped immediately, with industry losses estimated at $2 billion to $4 billion. Trade still has not fully recovered.

Within the cattle industry, the database is seen as essential to restore US exports in the international market.

The first stage of the animal ID system involves free registration of the "premises" where livestock is kept. A seven-digit number is stored by the federal government.

The second stage involves identifying animals with a microchip or a plastic or metal ear tag containing a 15-digit code. Federal officials aim to register cattle, bison, poultry, swine, sheep, goats, deer, elk, horses, mules, donkeys, burros, llamas, and alpacas. Household pets are not included.

The third stage, not yet in effect, would require farmers to report animal movements to the database within 24 hours. Farms that move animals in bulk from feedlot to slaughterhouse can get one animal ID for the entire herd. But smaller farmers who move and sell animals individually would have to get each animal an ID at a cost of about $1.50 apiece.

Small farmers are complaining about the cost of ID microchips and technology readers, as well as the labor costs involved in tracking and tagging animals.

"The small guy will get hit the hardest," said Pam Potthoff, of Women Involved in Farm Economics, whose family runs a cow and calf farm in Trenton, Neb.

Other farmers argue that a one-size-fits-all system is not appropriate.

"Where is the scientific proof that small farmers pose the same disease risk as large, confined feeding operations?" asked Judith McGeary, an Austin, Texas, farmer and lawyer who founded the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance to fight the database system.

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