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NAIS study findings, accuracy questioned

Pat Kopecki
Wilson County News

Across the county as Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack meets with stakeholders regarding the controversial National Animal Identification System (NAIS), groups have been reviewing and voicing their concerns over the accuracy of the data reported in a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In a synopsis of the 400-page report titled “Benefit-Cost Analysis of the National Animal Identification System,” the USDA states that this document provides “a condensed, high-level summary of the detailed report and focuses more on the results than the technical methodologies used by the research team.”

Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, heads one of the groups which has followed NAIS closely and is concerned about the accuracy of the study.

Using the beef cattle section of the cost-benefit analysis, McGeary e-mailed the following comments May 12 regarding the report.

“The bottom line is that even the study acknowledges that the costs for small farms would, on average, be two and a half times higher than for large operations. And the study grossly underestimates the true costs for small farms, by improperly including more than half a million farms into one category,” McGeary said.

McGeary said the study identified 356,295 cow-calf operations in one category consisting of one to 49 head that are not currently tagging their animals. The study estimated an average cost of $7.17 per head sold.

She used the 2007 census to explain why the she feels that a severe underestimate of the real cost was calculated. Twenty-four percent of the farms that own cattle have only one to 9 head, or 233,078 farms. Another 174,518 farms have 10 to 19 head. The USDA study does not give the average costs for these operations.

McGeary said a total of 585,050 farms account for the 1 to 49 category, while all the other larger operators or categories combined amount to 164,850 farms in the USDA study. She questioned why the study did not break the numbers down to reflect the true numbers of the smaller farms. As the cost-benefit study itself acknowledges, the cost goes up as the herd size shrinks.

A second issue McGeary addressed is the cost of the radio frequency identification tags (RFIDs).

“The assumptions made about the costs of reading the RFID tags are ridiculous,” McGeary said.

The consultants conducting the study did recognize that the cost involved for the small producer is not economical. The study’s theory, McGeary said, is that a new business will start — a custom tag reading business — that will be located “within 25 miles of each small farm.”

“Based on those fundamentally flawed assumptions, they claim that someone with five head of cattle would pay only $9.35 ($1.87 per head) to have someone drive out to their farm and electronically read the tags,” McGeary said.

The cost of the technology required for recording the identification numbers and the animal’s change of ownership, or even death, was another concern McGeary identified that will add an additional burden.

“There are many people out there, including Amish, Mennonites, and elderly farmers, who don’t currently have computers or Internet and would not use this equipment for any purpose other than NAIS.”

One final concern of McGeary’s is the cost of databases.
“The research team attempted to contact multiple RFID database providers to obtain costs per head of their databases so an average cost for data storage could be ascertained. Not surprisingly, this information was not readily given out,” McGeary said.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture was the source of information for the study. The Michigan Agriculture Department “has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from USDA to require electronic tagging by Michigan farmers,” McGeary said. “The study estimates that people will be charged only 8 and a half cents to enter data into the databases.”

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