Keeping Track of Cattle's Age Will be Tough

Dewey Lienemann knows the birth date of every one of his cattle.

Oct. 26—Dewey Lienemann knows the birth date of every one of his cattle.

"But that's just me, a small producer," says Lienemann, the Webster and Clay Counties extension educator who has 25 head near Red Cloud, Neb. "Some of those big guys in the Sand Hills couldn't even tell you the birth month."

Before cattlemen in the Midlands and nationwide can resume the lucrative beef trade with Japan, they will have to prove their cattle's age. That could be a tall order for some.

In an industry that might keep thousands of animals from hundreds of sources in the same feedlot before sending them to slaughter, age records are not always available. Cattle are typically slaughtered between the ages of 13 and 24 months.

The United States and Japan announced Saturday that they had agreed in principle to resume the beef trade, disrupted in December by the discovery of mad cow disease in Washington state. Japan insisted that imports be limited to animals younger than 21 months, because that is the youngest age at which mad cow disease has been discovered in an animal.

Further negotiations will determine when trade will resume and how to prove that U.S. beef meets the Japanese age requirement.

"Cattlemen should be excited that we're making progress," said Allen Bright, president of the Nebraska Cattlemen. "This is a step, but there will have to be several more steps."

There are several methods to determine a beef animal's age:

Ranchers often record an animal's birth in a logbook and affix an ear tag to the animal that stays with it for life. Records can be transferred when the animal is sold, though this does not always happen.

Some animals are fitted with electronic identification tags, which can be scanned to record every time the animal is transferred. The tags also can be scanned to produce the animal's full history.

Other cattle, including registered and purebred animals, have their age verified through an independent auditing agency. These programs rely on information provided by ranchers, but they might do their own verification as well.

Veterinarians can roughly determine an animal's age after slaughter by looking at its teeth, which change as the animal ages. Similarly, the ribs change shape and color with age. But these physiological changes yield only a range of ages within months of the exact age.

Whether any of these methods is acceptable to the Japanese will be determined in the next month and a half, when experts from both countries will negotiate precise terms of resumed trade.

Julie Quick, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said 70 percent to 80 percent of the cattle slaughtered in America are 20 months old or younger, but she did not know how many could have their ages verified to comply with Japanese rules.

According to a Japanese official quoted by the Reuters news agency, only 10 percent of American cattle have birth records. Americans in the cattle industry echoed that estimate.

Several programs, including Nebraska Corn-Fed Beef, Red Angus and PM Beef, track the cattle sold under their brands and can verify their ages.

"The paperwork is not extremely complicated," said Logan McClelland, executive director of Nebraska Corn-Fed Beef. "It's just a matter of getting everything recorded and transferred from owner to owner."

© 2004, Omaha World-Herald, Neb. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.