Your Life Under the National Animal Identification System

by  Judith McGeary

This article was originally published in the July-October 2006 edition of Small Farm Today.


As people learn more about the National Animal Identification System, or NAIS, some have asked, “What’s so bad about it?” The arguments against NAIS range from philosophical objections about property and privacy rights, to pragmatic concerns about cost and technological problems. Rather than talk about these concerns in the abstract, let’s look at what would happen if NAIS is implemented, some of the day to day realities.


The Warning

“Knock, knock.” You open the door. Two men are standing there. They hand you an envelope and say, “This is a warning. If you do not comply with the NAIS, you may face fines of up to $1,000 per day and criminal misdemeanor penalties.” (While the exact fines and penalties will vary from state to state, this level of enforcement has been proposed in multiple states.) You ask who they are with, and they say “Your State Department of Agriculture.”

As you read these words, perhaps you think that your government wouldn’t treat you like that. Think again. This has already been the experience of some people in Wisconsin, where mandatory premises registration went into effect in January.

Next, you open the envelope and find instructions for premises registration, animal identification, and animal tracking. While you resent the government intrusion, you are scared of the penalties and decide to comply. Now what?


Premises Registration


Do you have to register your premises?

If you own even one livestock animal from a list of 28 species, you must register. The list includes chickens, horses, cows, goats, sheep, hogs, turkeys, quail, guineas, llamas, alpacas, deer, elk, and bison. You must register if you have any type of premises: farm, ranch, exhibition/show facility, laboratory, market, slaughter plant, vet clinic, or anyplace else even one of these animals is kept. If you lease land for your animals, that premises must be registered. The school that keeps baby chicks for science experiments, the elderly neighbor with 3 hens for fresh eggs, the generous couple that take care of a pony that was rescued from neglect — they will all have to register.


What do you have to do?

If you have a computer and internet access, you log on to register your premises online. Otherwise, you call your state Agriculture Department and ask them for the forms. You provide the following information: name, address, phone number(s), and email type. You also give them your street address and detailed driving directions. And you tell them every type of animal that you have on the property.


Animal Identification


Do you have to identify your animals?

Whenever an animal leaves its birthplace, it must be identified. Are you selling a calf? Taking a weanling to its first halter show? Taking a batch of baby chicks to the local fair? Perhaps you had the bad luck to have a calf be killed by predators and you need to send the carcass for rendering. It’s time to get individual identification numbers for each of them!

But don’t poultry and swine get group ID numbers? Perhaps, but only under limited circumstances. Only if your animals are kept together as a group from birth to death, and never commingled with animals from a different “production system” in which they were born, do you get to use a group ID. So if you’re a factory-confinement chicken or hog operation, you can avoid the expense and time of individual identification. But if you buy chicks from one hatchery, and put them in the same pen as your layers from last year from a different hatchery, you will need to individually identify them. Or if you have a few chickens that you plan to take to local exhibitions, or rare breeds that you plan to sell to different people to try to perpetuate the genetics, you need to order individual tags.


What do you have to do?

You contact either your state Agriculture Department, the industry organization, or breed association that has the authority to issue identification numbers for you, and request that they send you the official tags. For cattle, it will be radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. For horses, it will be an implantable microchip. For other animals, it has not been decided yet, but the clear trend is towards electronic identification to allow for automated tracking.

For poultry, one option might be to leg band them; but if they’re tagged as chicks, you’ll have to change bands as they grow, and keep track of each tag number as they’re changed. Or perhaps you will put a string through their necks and have a tag hanging off the side, like a price tag on a piece of clothing. Don’t laugh – that’s an option that was included in the poultry working group’s presentation at the latest conference on animal identification! And don’t forget that the identification device must bear the entire internationally-unique 15-digit number, “easily and reliably readable.”

You get the tags and pay whatever fee the government has decided upon. Perhaps it will be subsidized by our tax dollars, perhaps not. You go round up your animals. Do you have the equipment to restrain the cows’ and sheep’s heads so you can insert the RFID device into their ear? Do you have the syringes and expertise to implant the microchip properly into the horse’s neck? If not, call your vet or pay someone else to do it. There will probably be new businesses established, where you can take your animals to have them tagged – for a fee, of course. How many minutes or hours are spent with the tagging? How much stress have you placed on your animals in the process?

Once you’re done with the physical labor of the tagging, then you fill in the paperwork and send it to the government or industry database, or you spend hours sitting at your computer, inputting all the information. The paperwork might require you to specify the birthdate, gender, and breed of each animal.


Animal Tracking


Do you have to track your animals?

The USDA Draft Plan and Program Standards includes a long list of “events” to be reported within 24 hours after they occur: tag applied, animal moved onto a premises, animal moved off of a premises, lost tag or replaced tag, animal dies of natural causes or is euthanized, animal is slaughtered, animal is missing. The reports will include the premises of origin, the destination premises, and the animal’s identification number.

But you’re just raising food for yourself, you say. Aren’t you exempt? It depends. Was the animal born on your property? Did the animal never leave the property? Is it only for your personal consumption? If the answer to all three questions is yes, then you don’t have to ID and track the animals. Even then, premises registration will still be required, even if every animal you own spends its entire life on your farm.

If an animal that was born on your premises is sold or leaves and is commingled with animals from different premises, it has to be identified and tracked. If you bring animals from other premises onto your farm, they have to be identified and tracked. So if you buy day-old chicks at the local feed store, your neighbor gives you a bottle lamb, or you buy a weaned calf at the local sales barn, then the animal will have to be identified before it reaches your premises; it is now in the system, and you will have to file reports for all reportable events.


What do you have to do?

Because the government’s goal is to provide 48-hour traceback, all reports must be filed within 24 hours after the events, or by the close of the next business day. So you log onto the internet on your computer and file a report with the appropriate database. Don’t have a computer? Don’t worry, you can do the forms in hard copy and send them in – as long as they get there within the required time. Your farm budget and schedule includes going to the post office and spending the money on overnight delivery, doesn’t it?

Will you have to pay a fee for each report? Someone has to pay the costs of the databases, after all: the hardware, software, and labor. One possibility is that you will pay a fee with each report. An alternative that has been proposed is to add the costs of the databases to the cost of the electronic tags, and to assess fees on slaughterhouses and sales barns. While the costs will not be as obvious, we producers will still pay those costs in the end.

You want to take some chickens to a local exhibition or fair, or you want to take some cattle or horses to a rodeo. File a report within 24 hours. Don’t forget that you have to report both the movement from the farm to the fair and rodeo and the movement back to your farm. It may be that the show organizers have to file the report, in which case their costs in time and labor will certainly be passed on to you in show fees.

You kill a chicken for your dinner. File a report within 24 hours. You take a calf in to be slaughtered and sell half of it to a friend. File a report within 24 hours. You go out to your pasture and find the remains of some chickens that were killed by a coyote. You will need to determine which chickens they were (it’s doubtful the coyote will leave the tags behind!), which means you will have to read the tag of every remaining chicken. And then file a report within 24 hours.

At a recent national conference, the head of the cattle working group stated that a report may even be required for an animal that had been born on the premises and died on the premises, if the owner wanted to send the body for rendering. So if one of your calves dies for any reason, you will have to pay for identifying and tracking it simply to send it to the renderer!

Let’s say you bought some calves at the sales barn, so that they already had tags on them. You put them in your pasture for a few months, and then plan to take them to a sale. When you round them up, you discover that 5 of them are now missing tags. You will have to go through the process of obtaining new official tags for them and file a report. And if those calves came from different premises of origin, you probably have to specify which lost tag became which new tag – so you will need to have branded or otherwise marked them in addition to the required RFID tags.

Sit down and calculate how much time this will take you. Make a guess at how much you will pay for tags, reports, and equipment. The USDA hasn’t done that calculation, so they have no answers to give, but you will have to live with the consequences.

The consequences won’t end with the burden on the individual. How many animal owners will sell out? How many people will quit showing their animals, or reduce the number of shows they go to? NAIS will have a ripple effect on local feed stores, sales barns, livestock supply stores, the real estate market, and the tourism industry.


And Now What?

The purpose of NAIS is to provide 48-hour traceback of all animal movements. NAIS will not prevent diseases from occurring. It does not address animal management, such as feeding cows parts to other cows or the other practices of factory farms that lead to animal health problems. It does not prevent wild animals and insects from spreading diseases, nor does it protect against foreign animal diseases from being brought into this country through lax inspection of agricultural shipments. All it does is provide after-the-fact information on where a sick animal has been. So what does the government plan to do with this information?

Let’s look at Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), one of the diseases frequently used by the proponents of the program as a reason for implementing NAIS. The USDA’s stated policy in case of an outbreak of FMD includes “depopulation” within 10-kilometer kill zones. FMD is not transmissible to humans and is generally not fatal to animals. But it causes economic damage, particularly to the export markets. So to protect the market, the USDA will kill all animals that are susceptible to the disease within a 10-km zone of a single confirmed case of FMD. No waiting for symptoms, no tests – just slaughter.

You say: “But you have the reports! My animals haven’t left my property in 6 months, they had no contact with the diseased animal!” And the USDA responds that it doesn’t matter, because FMD is airborne and can be spread by wild animals, which are not identified and tracked. “Please stand aside so we can kill your animals.”

You’ve spent countless hours and many dollars trying to comply with the government regulations, in the name of animal health. In the meantime, the limited resources that could have been used to inspect imports – and keep FMD from ever entering the country – have been wasted on NAIS. And you are left with a pile of burning carcasses and the hope of government compensation for your losses.



Unhappy About NAIS? Do Something!

If this is not a life that you want to live, then do something about it now. There is still time to stop this program. USDA has chosen not to issue federal regulations at this time, and is encouraging states to implement NAIS. Call and write your state legislators, urging them to oppose NAIS. You can find sample letters and information on how to contact your legislators at, along with other tools to help you educate your friends and neighbors and take action.

The responsibility for our animals’ health lies with us, the animal owners. We can take care of our animals without NAIS. NAIS will trample our rights and drain us of time and resources that could be used to actually improve animal health. We can all protect our rights by speaking up now.