Testing of radio-frequency identification eartags on animals is well under way on Landcorp farms and shows that the technique is workable — at least when the animals can be directed through a narrow race.
The current aim is to rely on passive tags simply to identify each animal, recording variable information such as its weight and its current location in separate databases, says Landcorp national marketing manager Phil McKenzie.
“We’re running five trials, and they’ve been going for anything between two and 12 months. The first one was for commercial beef cattle, then we set up RFID as part of a sheep-breeding programme.” There are two trials on dairy farms, where data are taken at each milking and recorded against the cow’s identifier. The latest trial is with deer.
“There have been no major problems,” says McKenzie. “As with any trials there were some teething issues. Part of the challenge is that there’s a big range of suppliers of tags, readers and software, but there’s no complete package.” Anyone who is looking at using the technology will have to choose a type of tag, readers and software separately and test them to see they work together properly. “We’ve evaluated a lot of the components as we’ve gone through the trials," he says.
The 800mm width of a cattle or sheep race brings the eartag easily within range of all readers, he says and there “we have everything beeping and whistling at the right time and place.” The current stage is to take an inventory of the data available around the country, some already on computer systems, some currently recorded in manual form. Increased computerisation will go hand in hand with the establishment of links between the databases and the eartag ID.
If a farmer wants to count animals through a four-metre-wide gateway, two or more will be going through at once and that could result in shielding of signals or even double-counting of some tags. The situation is worse than that of trying to get all the goods on a pallet read as they enter a warehouse, McKenzie says. “The boxes on a pallet don’t move about all the time.” Animals contain water and blood, are covered with hair and may have horns, some of the most troublesome of radio-shielding substances.
Deer particularly like to travel in bunches. The movement means the software relied on to prevent signal collisions with stationary or predictably moving goods does not work so well.
Some trials have been done of the alternative RFID carrier, the bolus — a hollow pill that sits in the animal’s intestine; but that is less useful for meat processing, since the internal organs are extracted and the bolus must be “recovered”. You always know where the eartags are — on the animal’s head, Mackenzie says.
He would prefer to see the use of RFID established as a matter of good practice rather than made compulsory, though doubtless laws and regulations could be drafted if needed. Voluntary participation “is a lot more marketable to farmers, especially if they can see benefits in it,” he says.
Meat and Wool NZ's Jeff Grant, head of the industry working party on animal identification, emphasises its utility in controlling a major disease outbreak (a factor which might not be immediately saleable to individual farmers).
An effective traceability system enhances our ability to combat the spread of an exotic disease and minimise its impact, Green says. “The sooner we can track down animals implicated in a disease outbreak the sooner we can control it and the less impact it will have on the productive economy.” An effective and speedy traceability system could limit the area needing to be quarantined, allow unaffected parts of the country to continue producing and limit the effects in overseas markets.
Sound policy around animal identification and tracking will also help New Zealand’s position in satisfying overseas requirements for meat traceability for less cost. This helps maintain market access in the face of increasingly stringent import conditions. Overseas markets are continually raising the bar on animal ID and traceability and we don’t want to be in the position of having to adopt someone else’s system, Green says.