ROBERTSON – An agricultural technology company from the near non-town of Robertson could prevent the next mass eradication event in the U.S. livestock industry.
Fort Supply Technologies has designed a system that’s currently leading an industry drive to halt the spread of infectious disease in cattle populations. The goal is to trace cattle movements without scanning animals individually in headlocks or other chokepoints, which slow down the movement of cattle, to know where a diseased animal has been and to best trace which other animals might be infected.
In the ranching industry, diseased cattle can be a life-and-death problem both for the cattle themselves and, in a business sense, for the ranchers who raise them.
The big one
Disease spreads wildly in clustered cattle populations, and state and industry officials sometimes become harbingers of bovine holocausts to cull herds of even potentially sick animals. Hoof-and-mouth disease captures a lot of attention in the industry because of its massively infectious nature and its ability to transfer among all cloven-hoofed animals – cows, sheep, pigs, etc.
According to Dr. Justin Smith, a veterinarian who’s now the animal health commissioner for the Kansas Department of Agriculture, the disease can have massive impacts on herds. While the disease can’t transfer to humans and isn’t a human health hazard, it hits cattle hard as they develop painful lesions on their hooves and in their mouth.
“If we can deal with hoof-and-mouth, we’ll be able to deal with anything,” Smith said.
While animals with the disease rarely die because of it, they stop eating and drinking like they should while they have it. And they never return to their prior performance level after recovery. That impacts the economic viability of the industry and restricts an operation’s ability to trade infected animals.
“It’s a catastrophic economic impact,” Smith said. “Particularly the cattle and swine.”
That requires some massive action if an outbreak is detected.
“It is an eradication event,” Smith said, indicating non-affected animals are also under investigation by association. “We’ll try to stamp out the virus – but we have to find them first.”
The cloven-hoofed holocaust
The last outbreak of hoof-and-mouth in the U.S. occurred in 1929, when hogs ate infected meat scraps from Argentina. A month later, the death toll to contain the disease was 3,600 animals.
That pales in comparison with other historic outbreaks (see sidebar). Notably, an outbreak in the United Kingdom in 2001 caused an estimated $13 billion in economic damage and cost the government $3 billion in producer compensation. The outbreak cascaded to more than 2,000 known cases, and the British Army was called on multiple times to cull herds and perform mass burials of thousands of animals at a time.
In just one area that became known as “the killing fields,” about half a million animals were buried in 2 kilometers of 13-foot-deep trenches.
In 2010 and 2011, South Korea had its own outbreak that dropped exports of beef and pork 96 percent as the country culled more than 1.3 million animals.
Although the United States is better prepared nowadays to deal with an outbreak, estimates easily put damage over $14 billion were the disease to recur on U.S. soil. Those losses extend to the breeding of the animals themselves, as experts say the genetic selection dies with an infected animal.
But much of the cost could be avoided with the proper technological tracking tools, Smith said.
Guilty by association
Entire herds of cattle are sometimes eradicated if only one member of the herd becomes infected with hoof-and-mouth. This guilty-by-association tactic is considered necessary to avoid decimating herds, but digital tracking techniques could change the lay of the land.
Fort Supply Technologies is based in Robertson, Wyoming, on Fort Supply Ranch. The ranch once hosted a Mormon fort burned down in 1857 to prevent a hostile U.S. Army during the “Utah War” from overtaking it for their own purposes. The pending civil war never happened.
Nowadays, the fort acts as ground zero for new tracking and data entry tools for the livestock industry as a family ranch running upwards of 100 head of cattle. Fort Supply Technologies is principally run by brothers CEO Malcolm Harvey and Chief Technology Officer Nephi Harvey. Smith in Kansas is helping to run an industry-driven pilot program to use the technologies to track roughly 80,000 cattle in a market that could be a nexus for problems if a new hoof-and-mouth war were ever to break out. The program uses a top-down approach, placing readers in as many feedyards, livestock markets and packing plants as possible.
The speed of commerce
While the beef industry historically invested big in low-frequency tagging and tracking technology, the Harvey brothers said that system had big limitations. Namely, each tag has to be scanned individually on a moving target. That means slowdowns like headlocks to truly access data tied to a tag.
Fort Supply itself invested in the technology, but faced an uphill battle in getting ranchers to use it. So they started looking into ultra-high frequency technology rising into the space around 2013. Now, the business is built primarily around the platform, especially as costs have come down to the realm of comparability with low-frequency tagging.
“Fort Supply Technologies specializes in systems, products and solutions to electronically identify livestock, and to do it quickly without inhibiting flow,” Malcolm Harvey said.
In use, that means a reader can be set up at, say, a water trough. Or an auction entry. Or a feedyard chute. And every time a tagged animal passes within 15-25 feet of the reader, its unique number is flagged in an electronic database to show where it’s been. And when.
If enough scanners are in place, this provides an accurate picture of what animals may have associated with one affected by disease. That makes it a lot easier to pinpoint potentially sick animals than taking a blanket approach to hedge losses.
“If they can’t pinpoint where it’s been and exactly what it’s been with, it closes international borders of trade,” Nephi Harvey said.
That’s especially important in an area where a lot of movement occurs. According to Malcolm Harvey, the Kansas Livestock Association records 11 million bovine movements in the state every year, making it “an enormous risk” to not have tracking measures in place. The association voted unanimously to only use UHF technology for traceability measures, leaving Fort Supply in a prime spot to benefit as a pioneer in the industry.
Backing UHF technology fits with the goals of programs in place for Kansas through its cattle industry, said Smith of the Kansas Department of Agriculture. First, it’s a hands-free technology that works much like modern “tollbooths” that use the technology to scan moving cars and charge a toll automatically without constricting traffic.
Second, the technology should only track sightings. While Fort Supply can tie a unique identifying number in a tag to any information customers want, it can also strip it down to bare data that protects industry privacy.
And finally, “We wanted to collect data points at the speed of commerce,” Smith said. “Everything we do is on behalf of producers on the front lines. So if it doesn’t work for them, it doesn’t work for us.”
With the system in place, operators can do things as they’ve always done them, but have the data on hand that may prevent the spread of disease that could cost the beef industry billions.
“We’re excited about what we’re seeing preliminarily and the buzz it’s created in the industry,” Smith said. “Nephi and Malcolm have been huge to relate to both livestock needs and technological needs.”
SIDEBAR: NOTABLE HOOF-AND-MOUTH OUTBREAKS
1914 – 170,000 cattle, sheep and swine culled after the disease spreads from Chicago stockyards. Cost: $113 million in lost animals, adjusted for inflation.
1924 – 109,000 cattle, sheep and swine culled along with 22,000 deer after an outbreak. Cost: $58 million in lost animals, adjusted for inflation.
Today – An outbreak could cost $20 billion.
2001 – U.K. outbreak infects 2,000 animals, causing culling of hundreds of thousands of animals. Cost: $18.8 billion in damages, adjusted for inflation.
2010-2011 – South Korean outbreak causes culling of at least 1.5 million livestock animals, with reports detailing plans to bury 1.4 million pigs alive. Cost: Lost livestock topped $1 billion prior to inflation.