A cattle identification system started in July still has few participants in Northwest Colorado.
Yet ranchers say that such a program is imminent, as concern grows across the nation about mad cow and other livestock diseases.
Part of the problem, said Bill Ekstrom, agriculture agent for the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Office in Rio Blanco County, is a general misunderstanding in the ranching community about what the program entails.
Colorado is part of the Tri-National Livestock Health and Identification Consortium, a coalition of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, the Navajo Nation and Chihuahua, Mexico. It's an all-volunteer organization dedicated to finding an animal identification system that guarantees public safety while not exceeding the means of ranchers to implement it.
As far as Ekstrom knew, no Moffat County ranchers are participating in the program, and only two Rio Blanco County ranchers have joined.
This is how it works: Ranchers join at no cost. When they register, they are assigned an identification number. Then they must purchase tags that feature a bar code similar to what's found on purchase items as basic as a loaf of bread. The tag is inserted in the cow's ear and stays with it until it leaves the ranch. On average, tags cost $1.80 each.
The theory is if a disease or other problem is identified in an animal, researches can quickly track the animal's history.
"The biggest problem is ranchers think they have to buy it all," Ekstrom said.
Some ranchers are laboring under the misconception that to participate in the program, they must buy readers for the tags as well as computer software. Ranchers never have to read their own cows' tags, Ekstrom said.
Participating ranchers only need to tag their livestock when they sell them.
"Most tag at branding time or when they ship," he said.
A similar program was instituted for sheep producers in 2002, said C.J. Mucklow, agriculture agent at the CSU Cooperative Extension in Routt County. They accepted it in much the way he finds that ranchers are learning to accept cattle identification.
"Everybody knows it's coming. They're concerned about the cost and the storage of data," Mucklow said.
Kathleen Kelley, vice president of Ranchers-Cattlemen's Action Legal Fund, said her group sees some value in creating a cattle identification system, but more pressing issues exist with which the industry must first concern itself, she said.
First, country of origin labeling must be required on all imported retail beef, Kelly said.
This would let consumers know where their beef is coming from, she said.
Colorado's branding inspection system already creates the ability to trace an animal's history as far back as its birth, she said.
Australia has implemented an identification system that has been plagued with problems, she said. The Australian system has struggled with reading tags and had problems finding a satisfactory implant system.
The Routt County extension office has tentatively scheduled a program on March 17 to explain more about the voluntary identification system. For more information, call Mucklow at 879-0825.
Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or firstname.lastname@example.org.