The electronic ID tag system for cattle known as NAIT – soon to include deer - is live and mandatory, and uptake rates are high. But that’s not to say the system is without its hiccups – or its naysayers, reports Owen Poland.
A couple of months back I spent a pleasant weekend minding a friend’s lifestyle block, primarily to feed 17 heifers that were destined for hamburgers. My head count revealed that three of the cattle were non-compliant for NAIT.
“Yeah, I know,” my friend laughed, “they’re always pulling each other's tags off.” It’s hardly a criminal offence, but it won’t be such a laughing matter either from January when failure to fit or replace officially-approved tags will become an offence liable for a potential fine of $150.
Not that people in uniforms will be charging around saleyards and farms looking for unregistered stock, according to NAIT director Jeff Grant. The intention, he says, is to educate, and get people to co-operate. If you have to drive compliance on the basis of penalties, Jeff says, “then we’ve got the system wrong.”
The ‘system’ is the National Animal Identification and Tracing scheme (NAIT), the brave new and mandatory world of electronic tagging with which cattle farmers have been grappling since July. By having the ability to quickly trace animal movements in response to biosecurity or food safety threats, NAIT aims to soften the economic impact on our $16.5 billion dairy & meat export industry.
For NAIT chief executive Russell Bernard it’s a case of “so far, so good”. Within the first few months, 98 percent of cattle at saleyards - and 84 percent at the works - have presented with the appropriate tags. More than 50,000 cattle and deer PICAs (people in charge of animals) have also registered - though how many actually exist is a moot point. The Animal Health Board (AHB) has around 68,000 ‘herds’ on its database, including lifestyle farmers with only a few animals. However PICAS can include multiple registrations for a single herd (e.g. a farm manager and sharemilkers), or just one person looking after stock on multiple properties.
Despite the positive start, those at the coalface say the process has been something of a nightmare. Initial teething problems range from waiting lists for RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags, to panel readers failing to pick up tagged stock at freezing works. Apparently some PICAs “haven’t got their heads around it”, while others - especially those without computers - have “turned a blind eye” in the hope that NAIT will go away.
The official numbers might be somewhat deceiving too. Few untagged stock have been rejected, but Matamata stock agent John Price says some are avoiding the hassle and cost of NAIT by “bobbying” calves, even though even they officially require a meat processor’s ‘direct-to-slaughter’ tag.
It’s also not beyond the realms of possibility that untagged cattle are moving unrecorded between properties for grazing purposes. Farmers with run-offs more than 20 kilometres away have been “spitting tacks”, according to South Waikato vet Dr Ian Scott, at having to record stock in and out of both properties when they’re shifting animals every week in winter. “Not everyone likes to sit for half a day at their computer putting in data,” he says.
From statistics already collated, NAIT has been surprised by the number of stock being traded - some changing hands more than once in a day. Under the AHB scheme, Jeff says you would have “no show” of tracing those movements, whereas NAIT picks them up. However John says the data collection process is a pain in the proverbial. “Half our deals are done in the paddock,” he says, so hand-held EID readers or wands have become de rigueur as agents ‘NAIT’ animals on the spot and record the registration numbers of sellers and buyers, rather than simply sending cattle on their way.
Little wonder that stock agents have slugged clients with an admin fee of $1.50 (plus GST) per head (split between buyer and seller) to cover the cost of tag readers, computers and extra staff. Livestock Improvement (LIC) is also charging a management fee for those who register animals with NAIT through its MINDA system. Add the official $1.10 per head tag levy and $1.35 slaughter levy, and some are questioning the value of the scheme when costs are escalating and returns are falling.
What’s particularly galling to Ian Scott is that 80 percent of his deer never leave the farm and are killed within a year, “so we’re putting in NAIT tags to dump them in a box at the freezing works.” It’s money that Ian says won’t be spent on things like fertiliser. “It’s just another incremental step in making New Zealand farmers less competitive on world markets.”
One ray of light for the beleaguered is the proposed merger of NAIT with the AHB, which promises some operational efficiencies. Take the TBfree New Zealand programme managed by the AHB, which costs upwards of $70m annually. What NAIT will do, says Jeff, is provide better quality information about animal movements on specific farms so that testing programmes can be individualised. “That will significantly change the way we target resources.”
As chair of the Shareholders Council overseeing the merger, Federated Farmers director Anders Crofoot is there to make sure that the new organisation is as cost efficient as possible. While it’s frustrating for farmers to be at the end of a chain where everyone else recovers their costs, Anders says electronic tagging will force people to take a look at how they can leverage it.
NAIT has never promoted any wider benefits, but as processing companies get more into yield grading, Jeff says there’ll be huge advantages in being able to constantly monitor beef growth rates. “Reading them electronically is a hell of a lot easier than scrubbing the tag while it’s sitting in the head bale trying to work out what the number is.”
Assuming that you don’t mind paying upwards of $10,000 for a panel reader that is.
Despite our reputation as early adopters, New Zealand has dragged its heels embracing a centralised electronic identification system. The European Union (TRACES), United States (NAIS), and Australia (NLIS) all joined the club in 2004 with a mixed bag of systems designed to track and trace livestock. While NAIT “won’t be perfect” from day one, Jeff says we probably have the simplest and most effective scheme operating internationally - with the least number of exemptions.
Interestingly, the United States started out with a voluntary scheme which the Federal Government is now struggling to make mandatory. Opposition ranges from the financial burden on small farmers to the Amish who argue that making a ‘mark’ is sinful (see www.naisstinks.com).
Anders Crofoot has also “grudgingly admitted” that NAIT got it right by adopting a ‘two-legged’ system of recording movements from both the sender and recipient of stock. A flag comes up if either party fails to record their side of the transaction, so it’s a “self-healing system” says Anders - unlike Australia’s one-legged NLIS which he believes “really damages traceability” when there’s a breakdown.
Deer will follow cattle into the scheme next March, and like many farmers Ian Scott is asking “what’s the difference between a deer and a sheep?” Australia recently ruled out RFID tagging of individual sheep in favour of a mob-based system and Jeff admits that sheep are problematic because the technology isn’t cost effective. But he says New Zealand would be “foolish not to do it” if markets demand it.
And while the cost of electronic tagging might be winding some farmers up, Jeff says you can’t insure against the damage caused by a serious disease outbreak. NAIT, he says, is a small price to pay for the continued access and consumer confidence that our agricultural products enjoy in world markets.
This story originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.