The state of Colorado is testing radio frequency identification (RFID) tags as one way to help protect elk herds from contagious disease.

Working with three ranchers and a vendor of animal-tracking systems, the state has wrapped up a pilot test that involved tracking animals using passive RFID tags. Now the state is looking to launch another test with active RFID tags, which will hopefully extend the tracking range, said Scott Leach, a field investigator for the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Active RFID tags are battery powered and can send out a signal at predetermined intervals. Passive tags only transmit data when scanned and tend to have a smaller range.

As part of his job, Leach tracks chronic wasting disease (CWD), a degenerative neurological illness endemic in Colorado and some other states. CWD is viewed as a very serious threat to both captive and wild cervids - elk and deer - and the state wants an automated system to track and isolate any CWD outbreaks to protect elk herds.

The system must also meet federal National Animal Identification System (NAIS) specifications. The NAIS has been promoted by the US Department of Agriculture since 2003 as a way to automate the tracking of cattle and other animals infected with mad cow and other diseases.

Among the NAIS stipulations is that each animal have a unique identification that will allow it be tracked from place to place, said Leach. The RFID tags must also be affordable to ranchers, and must be able to track the animals over a wide area without causing them injury. Although the state is still investigating the technology, Leach said RFID is the preferred tagging method. If the agency finds that such a tracking system works well for the elk and deer populations, it may use RFID tracking for other species, such as range cattle.

A passive pilot project went well
To start the process, the state in late 2004 tagged a herd of 130 elk in a pilot rollout using an identification system from Calgary, Canada-based Advanced ID, which makes RFID and animal tracking systems. According to Leach, the pilot went well, with handheld readers able to get test results from the elks’ ear tags from a distance of up to eight feet. He acknowledged, however, that the percentage of elk that came into range was low, and he said there are plans to launch another pilot in March using active tags. No vendor for that project has yet been selected, Leach said.

In other efforts to use technology to track animal herds in the US, a new agribusiness-sponsored group was formed this week to help implement a comprehensive database for all animals and enable compliance with the NAIS. The United States Animal Identification Organization (USAIO) formed a board and has submitted a memorandum of understanding with the USDA outlining its plans for a public-private partnership.

One of the industry organisations sponsoring the USAIO is the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), which has in recent months been pushing the creation of a private database. The USDA itself has been leaning in that direction, said Rick Stott, a USAIO board member. Stott is also an Idaho-based cattle producer and sits on the NCBA’s animal identification commission.

A USDA spokeswoman said the agency’s policy is to help create a privatised database. However, she said, multiple databases could be a part of any final system.

The USAIO this month will roll out a pilot program using software from Viatrace, a Vermont-based vendor of tracing systems. Its SQL Server-based application will be live next month. Although the database is now located at Viatrace’s headquarters, the USAIO is looking for an alternate site to host it, said Stott. A CEO and CIO to manage the project will also be hired within six months.

Ranchers can log in
Stott said the Viatrace system will allow ranchers and other livestock producers to log in via the Web and enter relevant data using a spreadsheet format or XML formatting. The exact means of gathering the information, whether through RFID tagging or bar code-based readers, has not been decided. Ranchers will be able to access the system during the pilot and offer feedback on its usability and functions, said Stott. He predicted that the database could cost as little as 30 cents for each animal entered into it, which would make it attractive to smaller livestock producers.

However, at least one industry organisation has misgivings about privatising the project. “We prefer it be a government-sponsored database,” said Richard Bowman, chairman of the animal identification committee of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, in Billings, Mont. He said it’s uncertain just what direction his organisation will take.