PASCO, Wash. — Just 36 percent of ranchers are taking part in a federal program started five years ago to trace livestock in a disease outbreak. U.S. Department of Agriculture officials found out why last week, when 75 Western livestock producers gave them an earful during a meeting. The "listening session” was one of seven scheduled across the country in May and June to hear ranchers’ concerns, with the goal of increasing participation in the program. Those concerns haven’t changed much in five years: The cost is too high for small farmers. The regulations amount to bureaucratic suffocation. The program neither prevents nor controls disease. And what’s in a farmer’s pasture is nobody’s business. "This is the last of your freedom, boys. Freedom restricted is freedom lost,” said Bert Smith, a cattleman from Layton, Utah, who owns Ox Ranch in Ruby Valley, Nev. The nationwide tracking system, started in 2004, is intended to pinpoint an animal’s location within 48 hours after a disease is discovered. Farmers were to have registered their properties voluntarily with their states by January 2008. Mandatory reporting of livestock movements was to begin one year later. But just 36 percent of the nation’s estimated 1.4 million farm "premises,” which includes farms’ multiple locations, are registered for the program.
Preventing diseaseAs of March 31, the USDA has put $119.4 million toward the program, which it says will help ensure the safety of the food supply, particularly for export markets that may refuse to accept U.S. beef, pork or poultry during a disease outbreak. During the recent swine flu epidemic, several countries banned U.S. pork products, even though there is no evidence the virus is spread by food. The proposed system does nothing to prevent disease, and animal tracking would be better left for states to handle themselves, said Wade King, president of the Cattle Producers of Washington. "USDA should be focused on preventing the disease instead of tracing it,” he said. "The feds shouldn’t be getting into this program.” Carol Osterman of Akyla Farms in LaConner, Wash., said her small farm of cattle, goats, pigs, llamas, poultry and horses would be forced to close if the suggested "regulatory burden” becomes a reality. She recommended the program be eliminated, or at best, applied only to large, confined-animal feeding operations.
‘It just won’t work’Electronic tracking systems might not work in the cold, snow and rain that cattlemen and their herds must endure, said Will Wolf, who raises up to 300 head of cattle at his ranch south of Spokane, Wash., and markets 25,000 cattle each year from the region. "It has to be a system that works at the speed of commerce or close to it,” he said. "There are way too many problems to do it. It just won’t work.” The ability to trace animals from birth to slaughter became crucial after the discovery of mad cow disease in a Mabton, Wash., dairy cow in December 2003. That cow’s origins later were traced to Canada, but federal authorities were never able to trace all the animal’s herdmates, which may have eaten the same feed. The only way cattle are known to get the disease is by eating feed containing certain tissues from infected animals.