October 2013
From the State Vet's Office

An Open Letter

To Alabama Stockyard Owners and Managers

Dear Stockyard Owners and Managers,

Over the past 12 years that I have been State Veterinarian, there have been many challenges, issues and even the occasional emergency I have had to deal with. However, nothing has taken as much of my time and energy as the development of a way to trace diseased or exposed animals so we can respond to them quickly to minimize the negative effects on the animal agriculture community. I just think it is appropriate to tell you how much I appreciate your participation in the development of what is now known as the Animal Disease Traceability Program. For so many years, a traceability program did exist as part of the Brucellosis Eradication program. The role you played in that program was invaluable. The same is true for your role in the present Animal Disease Traceability Program.

From the time we discontinued testing in stockyards for brucellosis, we knew we were just one disease outbreak from a huge mess. That fact was made very clear to us when, in the spring of 2006, we found ourselves trying to find the origin of a red BSE-positive cow with no form of identification. The silver lining with the BSE cow is the disease is not considered to be contagious from cow-to-cow and the time it took sifting through stockyard records and interviewing producers was not terribly critical. If it had been a disease such as foot-and-mouth disease or even brucellosis, our inability to identify and trace exposed and diseased animals could, and most likely would, have been devastating.

When I think back to the middle of 2004 when we began work on some type of program to allow us to recognize, respond and recover from an animal disease event, we knew that traceability would be the key component. Without traceability, we would be doing the equivalent of closing the gate after the cows all got out. We saw a snapshot of that when the United Kingdom had to deal with foot-and-mouth disease back in the early 2000s. A low estimate of the animals euthanized during that outbreak was 4 million. The average estimate was over 6 million. And, by the way, the United Kingdom did have some sort of identification and traceability, but it was not one that worked well for rapid response.

When we began the discussion, there was always one thing I believed then as I do now. You, at the local stockyard, would be the key piece of the puzzle in whatever program we put into place. With that in mind, in January of 2005, we announced the beginning of an animal identification program at Cullman Stockyard with a lot of press coverage and optimism that we could accomplish that goal. And while some of you did not agree with the plan as it was first laid out, none of you argued that there was not a need to be able to trace animals for the purpose of disease response. Many of you stood with us as we pounded on the podium and told producers, no matter what their opinion was, the program would be mandatory in 2009. When that program was reeled back in and it was announced that not only would the program not be mandatory in 2009, but the USDA had never really said it would actually be mandatory, we all lost some credibility with producers.

Looking back, it seems we have the technology to trace animal movement through electronic identification devices and various computer programs, but the details in implementing that program get too complicated. In addition, producers were being told the government was just trying to get more information to give to the IRS to use against producers. In fact, there was a whole bunch of just plain wrong information being spread, some through ignorance and some to intentionally derail the program. I have been involved in the development of the program from the early days and I can tell you with extreme conviction that the government’s only aim is disease traceability.

There were claims the market would drive disease traceability. We were all told that when Farmer Smith saw Farmer Jones get a nickel a pound more for his calves because they have electronic identification, the next time the Smith calves arrive at the stockyard they will have electronic ID. While you stockyard owners and managers have worked with producers to bring a more uniform and more marketable product to the sale, there are still a significant number of producers who bring calves to market with horns and testicles, costing the producer a nickel to a dime a pound on price. That number is significant enough to show us that disease traceability cannot be driven by receiving a premium if you participate. Some things must be mandatory. Do you think everybody would buy car tags if it were not mandatory?

Anyway, after representatives from the cattle industry approached me a couple of years ago asking that a Disease Traceability Programbe developed and made mandatory in the State of Alabama to protect the industry, you have worked with us to see the education of the producer and the implementation of the program succeed. We began with pilot programs in a few of your stockyards by tagging adult cattle with the old silver metal ear tags. Then more of you began to participate. Finally, when the USDA rolled out their disease traceability program, Alabama already had the train rolling down the track.

There are still some wrinkles to be ironed out as the Animal Disease Traceability Program matures, but we are in far better shape to respond to a potentially devastating disease outbreak than we have been for most of the past decade. It seems like I have attended many meetings and made countless phone calls as we have got to where we are today with Animal Disease Traceability. I want you to know I have made it a point at every opportunity to let the USDA and the rest of the country know that the success of the program, at least in Alabama, would be dependent upon the participation and support of the stockyards. I am writing you today that, nationally and regionally, we are noted for pulling together and getting our program off the ground. I just wanted to thank all of you in an open letter for your recognizing the importance of being able to trace animals for the purpose of disease response. If I can ever be of assistance to you on anything, please do not hesitate to call me.

Sincerely,

Tony Frazier, DVM, State Veterinarian