Nebraska Brand Committee continues work on electronic inspection program
The Nebraska Brand Committee’s producer-led advisory group put its heads together for more than four hours on Friday, Jan. 28, during continued discussion about the wants and needs of Nebraska livestock markets, beef cattle, and dairy producers currently using RFID ear tags.
The committee cautiously hopes that the advisory process will help it to determine and adopt qualified methods of nonvisual identification (electronic RFID tags, DNA, retinal scans, noseprints, biometric recognition, etc.), as a form of proving livestock ownership. It also hopes to develop a means for producers to enroll animal identifiers with the committee and perform electronic self-inspections for certain types of cattle movements. The move is not expected to impact producers currently using registered hot iron or freeze brands.
For some background, LB 572, which passed the legislature in 2021, gave the brand committee options when it comes to new technologies for animal ID and authorized the committee to develop an electronic inspection program. The Nebraska Brand Committee initially drew fire from state senators and the Nebraska Legislature’s Agriculture Committee for excluding press and public from its first two advisory meetings held last November, citing the committee’s desire to protect producers’ “proprietary information” from public release.
In December, one week after a hearing to update the ag committee on the status of its e-inspection program, the brand committee switched gears, embracing greater transparency, and its Dec. 17 online meeting was opened to the public. Participation in the group’s discussion remains limited to the producers that the brand committee has invited. However, once the advisory group has collected enough feedback and a basic foundation has been established, the committee intends to go through a formal rulemaking process and seek broader producer input.
Committee board member Duane Gangwish of Lexington stressed repeatedly that the voluntary electronic inspection program will be a “crawl, walk, run” process and that e-inspection will initially be limited to non-change of ownership transactions (for example, moving cattle to pasture outside the brand inspection area), until the system is perfected to a low rate of error. He cautioned that it may not be for everyone.
“There are going to be scenarios where it just doesn’t fit,” Gangwish said.
Gangwish also noted that under statute, approved nonvisual identifiers are not strictly limited for RFID ear tags, but could potentially contain a host of current and future technologies. Under state law, the committee must consider the degree to which such a method is prone to error, fault or fraud and hold a public hearing before adopting any new methods. That part of the rule making process will come at a later date after more information has collected.
The underlying concept for e-inspection has changed since the initial meeting on Nov. 2, 2021. A major change announced toward the start of the Kearney meeting was that the brand committee has abandoned going with a third-party database to store producer-provided data. Some producers in the advisory group had expressed concerns during the non-public meetings about data ownership and security and the potential liabilities that come from contracting with a third-party. They had asked the brand committee to see if it was absolutely legally necessary.
Initially, the concern from the committee side was that if the committee itself maintained the database, then individual producer data could be subject to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or Nebraska Open Records Act request. The theory was that a third-party, non-government database provider would create enough distance to shield that information. However, that theory was wrong.
“Essentially, our attorneys went and looked at all the FOIAble concerns that we’ve had. They said there is limited protection, so at the end of the day that there wouldn’t be any FOIAble protections for us,” said Brand Committee IT Director Danna Schwenk. “So with that in mind, it has basically eliminated the need to have a third-party system.”
Based on internal legislative discussions, it’s expected that LB 744, introduced by Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard — which initially would have rolled back the EID and E-inspection provisions that passed the legislature last year — will instead be amended to contain wording that exempts producer information provided to the committee for the purposes of electronic inspection from the Nebraska Open Records Act. Similar language already protects producers who voluntarily provide EID and premise data to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture for animal disease traceability purposes, and enshrining similar protections for e-inspection would assuage some major producer privacy concerns.
With the third-party database question abandoned, Schwenk said that NIC (formerly Nebraska Interactive) will handle the committee’s software development. While she did not have a timeline for when the vendor could complete the project, Schwenk said she had received assurances that the vendor would be able to handle the work.
NIC develops and maintains a majority of the State of Nebraska Government websites, including the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Online Court Records system. It has been responsible for the brand committee’s software development since 2017, including the current iPad-based electronic paperwork system the committee uses for physical brand inspections.
NIC initially collected a royalty of 6 cents per head of cattle inspected by the committee to pay for the software development. Schwenk said that once the advisory group and committee had determined the specifications, NIC would provide them with a cost-estimate for the electronic inspection program.
The bulk of the four hour discussion centered on the details and processes for how different types of producers will enroll their cattle with the brand committee (such as EID tag numbers or data relating to the sex/age/breed of the individual animal). There was also discussion about committee brand inspectors being cross-trained to audit the e-inspection process, similar to how committee inspectors currently audit Registered Feedlot records under the RFL.
“We don’t envision that this being a massive game changer on our staffing levels,” Schwenk said. “It’s not going to take away from enough of our physical inspections that we would lose staff.
“What we do envision is that the physical inspection staff that we have – we’ll be able to train those that qualify to do the auditing because it is a remote online situation – they can do that remote online auditing as part of their daily jobs as well.”
Brand Committee Chief Investigator Tom Hughson, Chief Inspector/Business Manager Dean Anderson, and Area District Supervisor/IT Assistant Kortnie Shafer were on hand at the Friday meeting to bring up the concerns from the inspector and law enforcement perspective. They also exercised oversight and shot down ideas that wouldn’t meet or match the standard of what can be currently proved in a Court of Law with a hot iron brand.
Schwenk said the brand committee’s online producer client portal will begin rollout in the second week of February, and asked the advisory group members to participate in beta testing the program.
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