Getting value from Livestock EID in extensive pastoral systems

Over the past 15 years a number of countries have adopted mandatory radio-frequency identification for livestock. In livestock circles this is known as “Electronic Identification” or EID, and it operates by giving each animal a machine-readable unique number – a modern take on the bar code.

In most countries, the driver for implementing a mandatory electronic identification scheme has been bio-security or disease control: being able to rapidly trace the movement of animals and locations where they have been in proximity with others is key to controlling disease outbreaks or understanding contamination problems.

Voluntary uptake of EID by farmers has progressed as well. Farmers use EID to support automated feeding and milking systems, and to capture data about the performance and health of animals. State of the art systems use location tags and accelerometers to monitor detailed movement of animals and predict mastitis and other disorders before we can observe them ourselves.

This is all well and good for intensive systems – both housed animals and those making regular visits to the farm dairy – but what about extensive beef, sheep, and deer operations? Can EID deliver the same benefits in those farming environments?

At Rezare Systems we love a constructive debate, and my colleagues and I frequently revisit this one. One of my colleagues is a strong proponent of EID, another a sceptic. I like to think I’m somewhere in-between, but I probably lean towards the optimistic end of the scale. The answer to this question applies to almost any technology: “It depends what you want to achieve”.

Over this post and the next, I’m going to look at a few scenarios:

  • Bio-security and disease control;
  • Inventory management;
  • Food chain information and farm assurance;
  • Benchmarking and trials; and
  • Continuous improvement or active management.

1. Bio-security and Disease Control

There have been a number of studies on this one, and providing you have a sensibly designed and administered scheme, a centralised tracking system for livestock is usually good value for money, though the reasons may still vary. In some countries the value is in being able to stop the spread of disease. Experiences in the UK and Europe have shown how quickly biological threats can spread without rapid and adequate controls. In New Zealand the issue is less around disease transfer (though Foot and Mouth would still be our nightmare scenario), but more around export market access and the ability to rapidly prove that we know and have addressed the cause of concern.

From an EID perspective, the answer is straightforward: identify animals with tags, read them on and read them off.

EID doesn’t solve bio-security and disease concerns by itself – electronic identification of animals is one piece of the puzzle, with a well-designed database, appropriate regulations, and tools that help keep that database up-to-date all essential to success.

2. Inventory Management

Large farming operations have another concern – understanding and controlling their inventory of livestock. Any large business (consumer goods anyone?) can tell you about the challenges of managing a large and distributed inventory of stock, and keeping track of sales, purchases and losses – let alone “shrinkage” from theft. Livestock farmers have the additional challenge that their inventory is born, gets older, walks around (even sometimes slipping through fences), and dies.

Electronic identification can support inventory management when combined with appropriate software and database systems, in the same way it does for those consumer goods supply chains. Using EID eliminates many of the counting problems, and can provide you with some degree of explanation (for instance, when dead or lost animals suddenly turn up alive again).

I recall an EID trial with some farmers in New Zealand’s South Island a few years back: the EID system was implemented to improve culling decisions, benchmarking, evaluate genetics and animal health strategies, track inventory, and simplify reproduction management. The farmer loved the certainty and accuracy of the new system for managing their inventory. The challenge was that reading large numbers of cattle one-by-one past an EID reader was just too slow when all you wanted to do was count animals. Livestock auctions or sale yards solve this problem with multiple lane readers, but that’s not economic on most farms. It’s obviously going to take some planning to ensure that reading all those animals complements rather than hinders other farm activities.

The other piece of the inventory puzzle is the software system. Ideally you want to read animals on and off the farm, and at other occasions when they are in the yards, and then have the database system identify how many animals have not been seen recently, by mob or stock class.

In the next post I’ll cover some of the uses for EID that could potentially deliver higher returns, but which also come with challenges of their own. In the meantime, I’d value your thoughts – what has been your experience with EID for bio-security or inventory, and do you have any other uses that are not in my list above?