EID sheep ear tags
“PROVE IT works and we will listen to you” – that’s the message from the Australian Livestock and Property Agents Association (ALPA) to those pushing mandatory sheep radio frequency identification (RFID) for the entire industry.
ALPA is one of many national and state-based sheep industry representation groups restating their opposition to mandatory electronic identification for sheep.
They argue that Australia needs national commitment to the current visual mob-based system, underpinned by full traceability through recording of property-to-property movements.
The key concern is that there are too many unanswered questions for RFID to be rolled out nationwide at this stage.
Issues to address include the real cost to the industry, who will pay, how much of the bill will farmers foot, what will happen with animals that have tags that do not read, how much restructuring of saleyards will be required, should the transport industry be involved, and even who is responsible for the equipment when it is not being used.
But the debate on whether the sheep industry needs electronic identification has been stoked again this month with the completion of the Livestock Saleyards Association of Victoria (LSAV) trials to implement radio frequency identification.
Its report – Implementation Plans for Sheep RFID in Saleyards – found that introduction of sheep RFID in yards was more of a human and change management issue than a technical one.
The report says data was collected at 13 saleyards where local demonstrations and direct stakeholder feedback received.
It recommended three model yards be established in Victoria - small, medium and large - to fully implement an operational electronic scanning capability.
“These sites will provide a final test environment to finetune operational arrangements, test supporting saleyard software and provide training opportunities for other yards prior to implementation elsewhere,” the report said.
ALPA chief executive Andy Madigan said following a foot and mouth disease (FMD) outbreak, traceability was the critical issue which relied on an accurate database.
“If someone can prove to us that it is cost-effective, manageable, will work at commercial speeds and someone is going to come up with some money for it then we are all for it.
"If people want to use it on-farm now as a management tool, then good luck to them,” he said.
Mr Madigan said if there was an FMD outbreak tomorrow in Victoria, the state would have no chance of stopping it because it had not mandated property-to-property movement in the current visual mob-based system.
Sheepmeat Council of Australia president Ian McColl said the council was still waiting for the federal government and other parts of the industry to throw their full support behind the current system.
“The visual mob-based system is the only way we can deliver sheep traceability right now, but all government and industry sectors must be fully committed and engaged,” he said.
“We have again seen calls for the introduction of RFID in the sheep industry, but this ignores the problems that such a move would cause.
“These problems revolve around information management, the commercial operation of a system based on individual electronic tagging and the significant cost implications.”
ALPA last week challenged those “pushing this barrow to read the rest of the recommendations by Mr Matthews”.
The report by Ken Matthews into Australia’s preparedness for a foot and mouth disease outbreak is widely quoted by proponents of electronic identification as an endorsement of mandatory RFID.
But LSAV will further push the issue at its 2012 conference in Wangaratta next month where it will host a sheep RFID industry panel discussion and project update from National Saleyards Quality Assurance’s David Pollock.
One of the key issues with rolling out RFID across the nation is its cost. Producers will pay the cost of tags – which cost about 80c in Victoria – but could be slugged with set-up costs through increased yard fees.
Last year, ALPA estimated minimum set-up costs for a saleyard with 1 million sheep throughput a year would be $168,000 while its annual ongoing costs would be $236,500 – in total 41 cents a head in the first year.
For a saleyard with annual throughput of 500,000 sheep, total costs were estimated to be $293,750 or 59c a head for the first year.
It is unclear at this stage how much government supported may be provided. DAFF is waiting on the SCoPI working group before it advises whether it believes electronic traceback is required and how much of the bill, if any, it will foot.
LSAV executive officer Mark McDonald said the association did not have a position on cost but most of the industry expected that both Federal and State governments would pay for the initial set-up.
Tag subsidies had previously been a state government issue but he expected there would be plenty of competition from tag manufacturers with five companies already operating.
The Matthews report clearly outlines that a FMD outbreak would tarnish Australia’s export reputation for a long time. But a key issue in the debate is whether use of RFID will restore market access and repair reputation more quickly.
Mr McDonald said while LSAV was not an authority in biosecurity, they believed an electronic system would be far more effective in closing down and managing a FMD outbreak.
“Vic DPI has a state-of-the-art IT system for this and it relies on RFID to make it work,” he said.
“The current system only identifies mobs and where they have gone and not individual animals. It would require massive manpower to manually check animal tags at certain times.
"With electronic readers thousands can be read very quickly.”
ALPA disagreed, saying it was the accuracy of the database that was most important.
WoolProducers Australia, Agforce, NSW Farmers and SAFF all remain united in their opposition to mandatory RFID.