the last two years."

The USAIP's preliminary cost estimate for a tracking system is $500 million to $600 million, Fourdraine said, adding that the numbers can change depending on devices and technology used, but is based on RFID technology.

"I'm not saying that's what we're going to get," he said. "That's what we came up with for a preliminary cost estimate."

The development team requested funding in 2003, and is asking for $33 million from Congress for fiscal 2005. It is also looking to receive money from the Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC). Fourdraine said this implementation is not likely to raise the price of beef.

Though the fiscal 2005 budget contains $33 million to assist with USAIP implementation, more funding is needed, said the CCA's Higgins.

"As an industry, we have many concerns about any national animal identification system, and feel there are many obstacles the USDA and state animal health agencies must overcome before any such system is practical," Higgins said. "With 95 million cattle in this country, RFID ear tags for these animals alone will cost more than $100 million. It is imperative that adequate funding be made continuously available to assist producers, auction market owners, feedlot owners and state animal health agencies with implementation of the USAIP."

Policies to protect the privacy and rights of individual livestock producers must also be created, Higgins said, adding that the complexity of implementing a national animal ID system is evidenced by the 1.03 million cattle producers and approximately 900,000 cow/calf producers across the United States in 2003.

"We do not feel many behind this plan have a functional knowledge of Western beef cattle production," he said.

Mark Lacey, who ranches in Bridgeport Valley, Calif., said the 48-hour identification goal is commendable, but may not be probable under large-range grazing circumstances, adding that some cattle are turned out on 50,000 acre allotments and would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find unless the entire allotment is gathered.

It is important, Lacey said, to impress upon people the scale of these operations in the West.

"Many people think of dairies or little farms in the Midwest or the East with 10 or 20 cows, and they all have names," he said. "But in the West, we see every cow only twice a year for branding and weaning. Even then, we may not see them all."

Also, the RFID tags have visible numbers on them, but the tags are the size of a half dollar, and the number is extremely small, Lacey said.

"You can't visually ID a cow you are looking for unless you rope her, or catch her in a squeeze chute so you can look at the tag," he said. "The same goes for reading it electronically. You have to get within 6 inches, so you might have to rope or catch 500 cows in order to find that cow."

But Cheek said automatic identification data collection (AIDC) facilitates rather than hinders on the ranch -- and depending on frequency, antenna design and power, RFID can go from close contact to several hundred feet.

"RFID technology is based on physics, wireless technology/communications theory and can be tailored based on the business process one is trying to solve," he said. "The current ISO [International Organization for Standardization] standard on animal tracking is relatively short-range -- approximately 12 inches."

GTR, however, is analyzing the problem and selecting the correct AIDC enablers. Small active RFID tags allow "real-time locating" of animals by pinpointing a specific animal's location to within approximately 10 to 15 feet, Cheek said. The Department of Defense is using this technology to locate aircraft parts over several square miles.

"If the rancher wants to locate a specific cow, I recommend an active RFID solution," he said. "The goal of GTR is to rapidly and accurately

Jessica Jones  |  Managing Editor