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Photo courtesy of Muller's Lane Farm.

This sow and her piglets are a few of millions of animals that could be numbered and electronically tagged if voluntary federal animal registration programs became required.

State feels the heat, drops ID requirement for livestock exhibitors -- for now

by Brian Boyer
April 15, 2008

Feeling pressure from farmers groups and the Illinois legislature, the state Department of Agriculture will not enforce a new rule requiring livestock exhibitors, including youth showing animals in 4-H fairs, to register with the state.

"We've decided to back off the requirement for this year," said Jim Kunkle, the manager of emergency programs and animal identification administrator at the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

The requirement had upset small farmers like Paul Muller of Rock Falls, who raises a variety of livestock, including heirloom pigs and turkeys.  "On the surface, it sounds innocuous," said Muller, who was concerned about the program eventually becoming mandatory for all farms. "I'm afraid that if you don't register your premises, you can't buy feed."

When registered, locations where livestock or fowl are processed, managed, handled or housed are given a seven-character identifier called a premises ID. 

"Knowing where animals are located and how to reach producers is the key to rapid, accurate, and cost-effective disease response," according to materials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture program.

The federal program is currently voluntary, but the Illinois Department of Agriculture had planned to make premises registration mandatory for livestock exhibition participants.

The exhibition requirement will be eliminated by House Bill 5776, sponsored by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Dan Reitz, D-Sparta.  "It was the wrong way to implement this program," Reitz said.  Majority Caucus Whip John Sullivan, D-Quincy, the bill's Senate sponsor, said, "The state will not have premise ID unless there is a mandatory national ID."

The bill, which passed the House without opposition, will also require the Illinois Department of Agriculture to create a process by which farms that have already registered as premises can withdraw from the program at both state and federal levels.

Premises registration, said Kunkle, is the first step in the implementation of the National Animal Identification System, a federal program designed "so that we can respond to an animal disease situation more easily and more effectively."  Requiring registration at exhibitions makes sense because of the high risk of diseases spreading when animals are "comingled and redisbursed to hundreds of locations," Kunkle said.

The second and third stages of the national system, NAIS, are animal registration and animal tracking.  When these programs are implemented, they will provide a way to trace the origins of an animal in the event of a disease outbreak in just 48 hours.  The animal registration and tracking would be accomplished by tagging individual animals and groups of animals with identification numbers and radio frequency identification tags, similar to those used by companies like Wal-Mart to track inventory.

Although all programs are currently voluntary, U.S. Department of Agriculture materials say that the goal is full, mandatory participation by 2009.

Farmers nationwide have voiced their opposition to NAIS for a variety of reasons, including the costs of implementing the system and even religion. Some Amish farmers have said that numerically tagging animals would be equivalent to making a "mark of the beast," a sign of evil.

Groups opposing NAIS are saying so online.  Web sites like,, and make appeals to the public with a strong, anti-corporate, pro-small-farmer message.

"We need to do a better job to get people informed," said Kunkle, who suggests that farmers "don't believe everything that's out on the Internet. People think it's gonna put people out of business.  It's not gonna put anybody out of business."

Reitz said he believes that aspects of the premises registration system have merit, but he does not think Illinois should make NAIS mandatory.  "I think there's a tremendous cost," Reitz said, that would be "borne more heavily on the smaller producers."  But, "if they want to make it mandatory on the federal level, then we'll live with it."

"I have a problem with government intervention," Muller said.  "It sounds a lot like a diminishing freedom."