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TTU News

Old McDonald had a farm, and on that farm, he had . . . a computer?

While some large farms may already be using personal computers for herd management purposes, a federal plan to implement a mandatory tracking system by 2009 to help limit outbreaks of contagious livestock diseases could make it necessary for farms of all sizes to become more technologically advanced.

Tennessee Tech University’s School of Agriculture plans to be ready to help small local farmers make that transition when the time comes.

Already, the ears of TTU’s cattle are being tagged with individually numbered electronic identifications that can be scanned in the field with a wand that uses wireless Bluetooth technology to transmit specific information about each animal to a personal computer, where that information can be read and updated.

“Right now, many farmers don’t individually identify their livestock at all,” said Bruce Greene, associate professor of agriculture at TTU.

Tennessee alone, however, has a cattle population of about 2 million, and those cattle move in and out of the state rapidly, to and from various locations across the country.

“Because a calf can move through as many as six or seven different locations before it goes to slaughter, it makes sense — for a number of reasons — to have a federal tracking system in place,” Greene said.

“Anywhere along the way, an animal can be exposed to a contagious disease like foot and mouth, which is little harm to people but which can decimate an industry,” he continued. “Being able to trace an individual animal’s movements would help to significantly limit the effects of such a contagion.”

An even greater advantage than health implications of such a system could be simply an increase in consumer confidence, both nationally and internationally, Greene said.

For instance, out of approximately 700,000 head of high risk cattle tested in the United States since the implementation of the present testing program in 2003, only three animals have tested positive for mad cow disease, which affects the central nervous system and can be deadly to both animals and people who eat infected meat.

“That’s a very low percentage, and they’ve all been older animals who likely wouldn’t have made their way into our food chain, anyway,” Greene explained. “About 80 percent of our beef comes from cattle younger than 3 years old.”

The fear of mad cow disease, though, is disproportionate to the threat. Since 2002, for example, the percentage of U.S. beef exported to Japan, which was then our main international beef consumer, has decreased drastically from 34 percent to only 3 percent in 2005.

The percentage exported to South Korea, our third main international beef consumer in 2002, fell from 27 percent that year to only .2 percent in 2005.

“Within that same timeframe, our total beef exports have decreased from 2,238 million pounds to only 580 million pounds — about a quarter of what it was only a few years ago,” Greene said.

Other advantages of a federal livestock tracking system include possible early detection of bio-terrorism and an immediate outlet for farmers to enter and retrieve individual animal records.

A number of tracking options are being considered, including an internal tracking chip or tracking tags such as the ones used on TTU’s cattle.

“For livestock like poultry and hogs that are more likely to be bought and sold in groups, a group identification number is likely to be the best option,” Greene said.

Farmers who are already accustomed to tagging their cattle’s ears for sales, though, might better respond to the kind of system already being used at TTU. “Why not combine a national tracking system with a management program to help the producer?” Greene suggested.

Regardless of how the tracking system is implemented, however, it will assign a 15-digit number to each animal. That number will be made up of 3-digit sections that identify the animal in descending order from least specific information, such as country and state of origin, to most specific information, such as the exact farm from which it originated.

For more information about livestock tracking systems and the program being used by TTU, call Greene at 931/372-3418.