In 2003, the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, highlighted the need for animal health officials to have timely and accurate data on livestock to be able to respond to disease outbreaks. The problem for Pennsylvania was that the state Bureau of Animal Health and Diagnostic Services had to contend with more than 22 different databases containing a variety of records — many were on a mainframe, others were in Microsoft Access or Excel, and still others were handwritten.
We developed the Pennsylvania Animal Health Emergency Reporting and Diagnostic System, better known as PAHerds, to find a way to track and manage livestock in the state. This database provides timely, accurate information, giving us the ability to identify, locate and eradicate devastating livestock disease outbreaks.
When I arrived as CIO for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture in 2004, many of the department’s IT systems were failing. It took weeks to obtain even basic reports regarding livestock operations when the data was needed in minutes.
“It was very difficult to query 22-plus databases to find what animals were on a farm, how many farms were in the area, and when any testing was last performed on those farms,” says John Enck, a former state veterinarian who is now director of the Animal Diagnostic Laboratory at Penn State University, in University Park. “Even when the data was discovered, it had to be entered again in a different data tool to evaluate it and disseminate it to the response personnel.”
What the bureau needed was the ability to quickly and effectively query the data in the event of a disease outbreak so that minimal time would be spent gathering information and more time could be spent visiting the infected areas for investigation and eradication activities. The bureau also wanted the capability to track individual animals, herds and flocks via radio frequency ID (RFID) technology.
Some of the options we considered included using a modified version of the federal USDA Generic Database or adapting another state’s system. But neither of these would truly deliver a scalable, easy-to-use, consolidated system. And our IT staff didn’t have the level of experience or skill set at the time to develop our own application. We ultimately decided to outsource the application to Computer Aid of Allentown, Pa. We spent $409,000 initially; upgrades, support and enhancements cost $300,000 annually.
The company designed a Web-based, hosted Microsoft .NET application that uses Microsoft SQL Server. Computer Aid hosted the system in the Commonwealth Technology Center, a government-provided facility.
The reporting tool, Crystal Reports, provided a vastly improved reporting environment over the mainframe. We were excited about the ability to generate reports on the fly. Eliminating the process of manual requests and querying made the system much more efficient and provided for the capability to quickly gather the data needed to respond to disease outbreaks. And best of all, Bureau of Animal Health and Diagnostic Services employees now have to look in only one location for all the data they need and the system enables the department to efficiently manage information during livestock disease outbreaks.
The consolidated system eliminates redundant processes by reducing the number of steps involved with the licensing and license-renewal process with the customers of the bureau. By having a consolidated database, a single license renewal can be sent to customers instead of having to go into one of the many disparate systems individually to run the renewal process. This increased our efficiency and made for a more customer-friendly system.
The PAHerds system complies with federal guidelines to issue premises ID numbers because it meets the security and encryption standards set by the federal government to communicate with their data systems. PAHerds also follows all formatting guidelines set for the issuance and acceptance of the federal premises identification number.
During the early phases of the project, it became clear that the business requirements phase would be intensive and exhausting. Consolidating the functions of 22 different data sets into one system was quite a challenge. The business analyst spent a lot of time making sure the requirements were aligned properly and that maximum efficiency was obtained. You cannot take a short cut on requirements gathering and expect to meet your goals, so our extra effort paid off in the end.
In addition to the consolidation, reporting, external feeds to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, integrated Geographic Information System mapping, premises management/animal movement, and a new emergency management reporting system were also on the drawing board.
The interface to the National Premises Allocator had to be reviewed by the USDA for security aspects so that it could be authorized to communicate with that agency’s database. The initial design passed with no changes needed.
By this point in the project, Paul Knepley took over as state veterinarian when Enck left for Penn State. Construction of the application continued despite a change in program leadership. We were fortunate that Knepley was able to step up to the plate quickly and he took an active role in seeing this project come to life.
Another major part of the implementation was user acceptance. Many of the staff members who used the mainframe had to be trained on PAHerds. “It’s never an easy task to change to a new information system, but PAHerds became such a powerful new tool that we also had to rapidly develop a whole new set of business rules,” Knepley says. “It wasn’t enough simply to enroll a farmer in a disease certification program anymore; we also had the staff asking what other species were on the farm, what other farms are part of the same business, who are all the contacts, are there multiple owners, etc. We need all this information to do our job but never really had a means of collecting and accessing it before.”
Once completed and deployed, the new system began to show its true benefits. The bureau was able to take a consolidated look at the people it did business with. Pennsylvania also began to interface with the National Premises Allocator as one of the first states in the nation to successfully do so in an automated fashion.
Mary Bates, a program specialist with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Animal Health and Diagnostic Services, says PAHerds offers a marked improvement over the old system. She can now look up licensees who deal with certain species of animals, fish, reptiles and amphibians; retrieve licensing figures; and find different classifications of licenses, such as pet shops, dealers, auctions, and buying stations.
“PAHerds has been a real efficient and effective tool for my programs and makes my job easier,” says Bates. “I’m forever grateful to have it.”
The system also is able to trace RFID tags placed on individual animals. The RFID tags consist of a unique 15-digit number, with the first three numbers used to identify the country of origin of the animal. These tags are ISO- compliant for the standards developed for animal identification, and they’re also waterproof, weather-proof and tamper-resistant.
There are different types of RFID tags: active and passive. Passive tags are used for PAHerds. As the tags come within range of the reader (a wand or a panel), the tag is energized and transmits data. An animal is typically tagged within a few days of birth, and the ID numbers from the tag are recorded by the farmer and placed into a herd management software package. The numbers can then be uploaded to an animal health system such as PAHerds, which in turn can upload data to the national system. When the animal leaves the farm, the departure is recorded and uploaded, and when the animal reaches its new destination, the process recurs.
We have also installed RFID reader panels at auction barns around the state. The animals pass through a designated chute with an RFID reader panel attached to it. As the animals pass by, the tags are read and recorded and stored in a local database. The data is uploaded nightly to PAHerds to record what animals were present at that auction barn and when. All of this data can then be used when a disease outbreak occurs by providing animal health officials with the ability to see what animals could have come in contact with an infected animal at any point.
Some farmers are also using the RFID tool extensively to manage their own herd information and have utilized the information provided by the RFID tag to schedule health exams, vaccinations, and pregnancy checks, and to track financial information, such as when and where the animal was purchased and how much it cost.
Overall, the system has shown considerable return on investment. PAHerds has completely eliminated manual certificates and recertification reminders, saving the bureau more than $75,000 annually on this process alone. Certificates are issued to prove that livestock farmers participate in one of our many disease-monitoring programs and have their animals tested on a regular basis. And by eliminating the need for the mainframe, we were able to reduce maintenance and support costs on our antiquated equipment by more than $40,000 annually. Changing our forms for license renewals obviated the need for impact line printers that cost $4,000 per year to lease and operate.
PAHerds has also proved to be marketable. Kentucky and Indiana have both implemented the PAHerds system, and California is currently reviewing the system. To foster a collective environment, the three states already using the system have created the Animal Health Information Management Consortium to promote the system now known on the national level as USAHerds. This consortium will include any state or other animal health entity that implements the USAHerds system and wants to benefit from collective development and improvement of the overall system.
PAHerds is designed to support the functions of monitoring animal health, protecting the food supply, and managing outbreaks of animal diseases. The system is currently being enhanced to integrate into the newly developed Pennsylvania Animal Laboratory Information Management System that manages the laboratory process of sample testing and analysis. Once connected, the two systems will seamlessly cross-communicate in regard to disease program management and actual disease testing and results. The system also provides the ability to track individual livestock and flocks or herds via RFID ear tags attached to the larger animals and microchips placed on cages and pens of smaller animals.
Sources: USDA Premises Registration Web site, USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service Survey