‘Mandatory cattle identification” are three words that conjure up all sorts of reactions among ranchers. Whether and how the federal or state government can make a rancher tag a cow or calf is a question that has sparked many lively discussions over the years.

After all, that’s one of the reasons brands were so popular.

But we live in a different world, in which ranchers need to track the movement and chain of ownership of cattle. In the event of an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy — mad cow disease — or another illness, the faster the source and other members of a herd can be traced, the less likely international and domestic markets will shut down.

A case in point: In 2003, a dairy cow was found with a case of mad cow. Its origin in Canada was eventually discovered, but the fate of some other members of its herd proved elusive. Only 29 cows from a shipment of 81 were ever found.

As a result, markets around the world slammed the doors shut to U.S. beef, costing the industry $11 billion, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission. Even french fries precooked in beef tallow were rejected in some overseas markets.

The ability to accurately and quickly trace cattle was sorely lacking, but what was the answer to this problem?

The idea that the federal government would force ranchers to use a mandatory identification system didn’t sit well with many. Several USDA plans failed to gain acceptance.

Comes now a group of cattlemen called US Cattle Trace. They say the ability to trace cattle from birth to slaughter in the event of a disease outbreak is valuable enough to warrant giving it another try.

The voluntary system uses ultra-high frequency tags to track cattle from ranch to feed lot to processor. Cattle Trace, a nonprofit, maintains the data base, which will be kept private unless mad cow or another virulent disease shows up.

If it does, tracing the cow’s origins and its herd mates would likely take minutes or hours instead of days or months. Or never.

While we understand the reticence many have for a government-run system, this one is different. It could be accessed only by cattlemen in the event of a problem.

The global market is a double-edged sword for the beef industry — and nearly all of U.S. agriculture. While it’s good to have access to huge markets in Asia and elsewhere, maintaining an identification system that tracks the source of a disease or other problem is critically important.

The cost of not doing that is the loss of some or all of those overseas markets for years or even a decade or more.

That steep cost dwarfs the cost of identifying cattle so they and their herd mates can be can be traced.

One other aspect is worth considering. A lot of arguments have arisen over Country of Origin Labeling for beef. One of the arguments packers offer in opposition to it is the added expense of identifying and segregating cattle from the U.S., Canada, Mexico and other countries.

A system that would allow them to trace the source of a cow all the way back to the ranch where it was born would make a COOL system that much easier and affordable.

Amber Itle, the assistant state veterinarian in Washington state, has checked out the Cattle Trace system. She says it seems to work well, and feed lot owners and other participants agree.

It’s fault, she said, is it just may be ahead of its time.

Sooner or later, the value of Cattle Trace, or something like it, will be realized. It will avert major shutdowns in the event of a disease outbreak, and it will help processors economically provide COOL, or a variation of it, that consumers and many ranchers desire.

But until then, everyone will just have to cross their fingers that no outbreak occurs.

Recommended for you