updated 7/7/2005 8:05:31 PM ET 2005-07-08T00:05:31

A nationwide, industry-run system for tracking livestock will be operating by January, a cattlemen's group said Thursday, less than two weeks after the government confirmed a new case of mad cow disease.

The Agriculture Department wants to have the ability, by 2009, to pinpoint the movements of the country's 9 billion cows, pigs and chickens within 48 hours.

The government had to use DNA analysis to identify the herd of a Texas cow infected with mad cow disease because there is no national tracking system. Investigators are searching for offspring and other animals in the herd that were born about the same time as the cow with the brain-wasting disease.

Producer groups and private companies already collect data about the birth and movements of livestock and are working quickly to offer databases sooner than the government's goal.

One group, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said Thursday its database would be running by Jan. 1, 10 months earlier than planned.

"You won't have to be a member of NCBA or the pork producers or any other group to participate in the system. You won't have to belong to any special package or program," cattlemen's lobbyist Jay Truitt said. "We needed a place for people to start parking information that would coincide with what USDA is doing."

Limited government, public access
The group is hoping to persuade the government to use the cattlemen's system instead of its own. Many producers worry about giving the government or the public access to closely held business information and would prefer a privately run system that would give the Agriculture Department to have limited access.

Truitt said the goal is to sign up 80 percent of producers in the first few years. The system originally was projected to cost $10 million to $13 million, but will be considerably less expensive, he said, meaning a few cents for every head of cattle.

Its contractor is a group led by the McLean, Va.-based consulting firm BearingPoint Inc.

Tracking is being done on a limited basis now in the U.S., but not by the government. For example, the National Dairy Herd Improvement Association maintains records on 4.5 million dairy cows, roughly half the nation's dairy herd.

Private companies also have data on livestock movements. Digital Angel Corp., which makes radio frequency ear tags, intends to have a database running within 6 months. Micro Beef Technologies Ltd. announced last week it has started its own database.

"We don't view ours as a competitor of NCBA or a competitor of USDA," said Digital Angel's president and chief executive, Kevin McGrath. "But it's not clear everybody is going to use the NCBA system, and it's not clear when the USDA system is going to be there. We already provide systems like this to customers who buy our tags and buy our scanners. We already do this."

Agriculture Department spokesman Ed Loyd said the department welcomes input from producers and the industry. The department plans to assign unique identifiers to livestock, ranches and feedlots by 2008; a mandatory identification system would kick in the next year.

"We want this ultimately to be a user-friendly system that isn't burdensome to producers so that it will garner wide participation and be effective at meeting our needs," Loyd said.

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