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Program tracks farms, animals

April 23, 2006|By CANDICE BOSELY

WASHINGTON COUNTY

Diseases don't care whether a farmer has three cows in a small pen or 300 cows roaming in large pastures. Viruses can affect a small flock of hens in a backyard coop as easily as thousands of hens in warehouse-sized chicken plants.

That's why the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) needs to be implemented, Maryland State Veterinarian Guy Hohenhaus said.

Not everyone agrees.

The federal program has been criticized by some as a cumbersome and expensive burden that could force smaller farmers out of business and as further intrusion by the government.

"Any time the government's involved, I'm not very anxious to be a part of (it)," said Steve Martin, 48, of Smithsburg, who raises a small number of animals, including hogs. "When somebody comes down the road and says, 'I'm here to help you,' there's always a catch."

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For now, the NAIS is a work in progress that is voluntary.

The program has three key components: Premises registration, animal identification and animal tracking.

Premises and animal identification is to be mandatory for all farms, big and small, in the United States by Jan. 1, 2008, and the ability to track animals is to be mandatory by Jan. 1, 2009, according to USDA documents.

However, Hohenhaus said those dates likely will not be enforced.

"That's probably optimistic," he said.

Under the USDA plan, farmers would have to obtain a unique seven-character identification number for their premises. Only one number is needed for each farmer's property, even if he or she has several different types of livestock on the land.

Farmers also must obtain unique 15-digit numbers for each animal on their property. Animals that are born, raised and moved as a group can be assigned a group 13-character number, according to two USDA documents ? the NAIS Draft Program Standards and the Draft NAIS Strategic Plan 2005-2009.

Both documents can be downloaded from the Web site at www.usda.gov/nais

To track animals, reports will be filed whenever an animal is moved from one premises to another, is taken to a veterinarian and when an animal dies or is killed.

In other words, the government wants to be able to know where all farms animals in the country have been from the time they were born to the day they die.

The program applies to farmers who have cattle and bison, llamas and alpacas, deer and elk, equines, goats, poultry, sheep and swine.

Some documents indicate it also will apply to certain species of fish as well as mussels, scallops, oysters and crawfish, but other documents omit any reference to aquaculture.

Marilyn Bassford, NAIS coordinator for Maryland, said that aquaculture registration eventually will be done, but is not now a priority.

Washington County has 775 farms on 125,159 acres, according to the most recent Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service's Census of Agriculture, which was done in 2002.

In Maryland, Washington County ranks first for hog production, second for both dairy cows and forage, third for beef cattle, fourth for barley and sixth for sheep, said Sue duPont, director of communications for the state Department of Agriculture.

Program's purpose: Contain problems

The goal of the NAIS is to be able, within 48 hours, to identify all animals and premises that have had contact with a foreign or domestic animal that might have been exposed to a disease, according to the NAIS Draft Strategic Plan.

Diseases of concern include mad cow disease, Newcastle disease and foot and mouth disease.

There's also another concern.

"In addition, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks make clear that an intentional introduction of an animal disease is a real risk," draft documents state.

Food products easily can be traced based on shipment information, but tracing the source of meat products ? the animals themselves ? can be difficult.

A potential food safety problem would require animals to be quickly found and, if necessary, contained, Hohenhaus said.

Although critics claim the program could put smaller farmers out of business ? farmers will have to spend time filling out paperwork and pay for the tags ? Hohenhaus said he wasn't too worried about such a possibility.

"It's a convenient scapegoat," he said of such claims. "Most of these folks are not earning their bread and butter" by farming.

Bassford said tags compatible with the program are available and range from 10 cents each for tags for poultry to no more than $3 for radio frequency tags for larger animals.

"I don't think it's going to be cost-prohibitive," Hohenhaus said. "It's an investment. It's not an expense."

Excluding smaller farmers and only applying the program to large farm operations would be ineffective because animals raised by smaller producers are not immune to viruses, Hohenhaus said.

"Diseases don't discriminate on small and big producers," the veterinarian said. "The disease organisms don't care if you're a big operation or not."

Other countries, including Canada, Australia and nations in Europe, have in place similar identification and tracking programs.

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