In the late 1980’s – only 30 or so years ago – a leading livestock identification company had a “major product launch” for a new marking pen. The ink would penetrate deep into the plastic tag, making the ID number “more permanent.” Prior to that point, producers used Marks-A-Lots and Sharpies that would last, maybe, for a year or so. For real permanence, we used a metal tag with a chiseled or stamped number, although they could wear out in time as well.
Fast forward through marking foils, inkjet and, ultimately, laser marking, the industry finally had tools to become proficient at animal identification. Market conditions – particularly the BSE issue in the UK and Europe, and the move toward full traceability in those markets – only served to accelerate this evolution. Laser-engraved barcodes were the first step toward automated ID capture – and soon thereafter, RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) took it one step further. National systems in countries such as Australia and Canada made RFID a cornerstone technology, and producers came face-to-face with a new technology on the farm that begged the question, “what else can I do with this”? Important tasks, such as automated sorting, feed monitoring and milk recording on dairies all came to the forefront as producers saw new and creative ways to create value through this new technology.
That’s not to say it’s all about identification technology and proficiency – it is not. Data – more specifically, actionable data – emerged, and systems (database-centric system) to house this data, find correlations and optimize value came to the forefront. Age, source and attribute-verified systems allowed producers, from small operations to large, to produce what the market was asking for, and to get paid a premium for doing so. The underlying technology – RFID – be it low frequency, ultra-high frequency or anything in between, continued to evolve as well to meet producer’s specific wants and needs – and will continue to do so, perhaps even toward newer technologies, such retinal scanning, facial and body scanning, or other biometrics.
Proficiency is not a goal to be reached – it is an aspirational state that demands we make the most of the technologies and capabilities of all market participants. It has not only allowed us to identify and trace animals, but now, through the additive use of accelerometers, temperature sensors, ultrasound measurements, genomic test data and so much more, we are becoming far more knowledgeable about the well-being of the animals in our care, and how to optimize health as well as value. Today we see – and can manage – correlation between activity and pregnancy, stress and production, feed inputs and health and, ultimately, management actions and desired outcomes. As the dataset gets richer, so does our knowledge and our capabilities.
As we optimize production systems in our livestock operations, we still, in the U.S, wrestle with the value of using the underlying tools for traceability for disease monitoring and management. It’s a big topic, and one the industry has wrestled with for decades. In the early 1990s the Livestock Conservation Institute (predecessor to today’s National Institute for Animal Agriculture), established it’s first “ID Committee,” which attracted a small group looking to learn how to use much of this emerging technology. We’ve watched other nation’s build national traceability systems, and then use our lack of such as a ‘non-tariff trade barrier.’ Today, we still struggle with ‘if’ we want or need such a traceability system – and the answer remains in the hands of an industry that remains divided on that question. What is not in question, however, is whether we have the capability to have such a system – we absolutely do – and we are capable of using the core technologies that can make it happen.
In the end, it’s about optimizing every element of our vast animal agriculture industry to benefit the consumer, the producers and the animals in our care. Identification might seem like a small piece of this puzzle, but you cannot optimize what you cannot manage, you cannot manage what you cannot measure and you cannot measure what you cannot identify. Today, we can do all of this – and that’s true proficiency and sustainability. And we’re only getting started … and through continued innovation at every level, we’re only getting better.