Value from EID in Pastoral Systems (part 2)

In my first post on this topic I explored some ways that people seek to apply electronic identification (EID or RFID tags) on pastoral farms. We looked at using EID to support bio-security and disease control, and for inventory management. Thanks to all those who shared that article with others.

This time I want to cover point 3 in my original list:

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

3. Food Chain Information and Farm Assurance

You may be wondering how this differs from using EID for bio-security and disease management. In many ways it is very similar in process, but how the data is leveraged is quite different. Monitoring location and movement of animals between farms and markets for bio-security accomplishes two main things:

  • It provides confidence that there is a system in place. This confidence can be essential to support inter-country or inter-region trading.
  • It builds a database of animal locations and movements that can be leveraged in time of crisis or disease outbreak. In this sense it is like an insurance policy – you spend all this time gathering data, but it is not used unless something bad happens and we need information to support a response.

In contrast, farm assurance processes and activities provide confidence a food chain is being well managed, and that animal welfare, food safety, people and the environment are being considered and addressed. Farm Assurance could be considered the farming counterpart to “Good Manufacturing Practice” and the use of ISO-compliant systems in many manufacturing plants.

“All well and good,” you may say, “but what role does EID play? Surely you can capture most of the required data on paper forms?”

Indeed, you can however the primary unit of production is an individual animal. Paper based forms tracking the treatment and movement of individual animals are largely impractical. This means paper based systems are declaration based while EID systems with in-field electronic data collection are evidence based. This has several advantages:

  • Capturing data “as it happens” provides increased confidence that the data for an animal is relevant and correct. Date- and time-stamped records show that it wasn’t artificially assembled just in time for an audit.
  • Electronic capture of data supports regular electronic “auditing” and may reduce the frequency and costs of farm visits by Farm Assurance auditors.
  • Capturing electronic identification of animals received, sent, or treated provides evidence that not only is the farm compliant with the Farm Assurance scheme, the animals coming from the farm are also compliant. This ties into the other side of the coin – Food Chain Information.

As with Farm Assurance, Food Chain Information is about increasing confidence our food is free from unexpected contamination and meets the specifications of the market. It also allows greater choice: a processor might utilise animals that are demonstrably antibiotic and hormone free in one line of product or to serve a specific market, while animals that have had the occasional antibiotic for animal health and welfare reasons are diverted to markets that are less sensitive to this practice.

You could certainly use paper-based declarations to achieve some of this, and many countries currently do. However, systems utilising EID will provide higher confidence about the data, and give the ability to differentiate on an animal, rather than a mob basis.

For this to work, the process of capturing movements and treatments must be seamless and easy for the farmer: something that my colleague Kim Saunders is working on with one of our development teams. Key challenges are:

  • The speed of EID tag reading (one at a time) can be slow when dealing with large numbers of animals. The circumstances here work in our favour because we have the animals in the yards and the treatment process is animal-by-animal.
  • Information systems that record movements and treatments need to be easy to use. This involves both recording new events against individuals and animal groupings, and reporting stored data in formats that meet assurance and compliance requirements.
  • Increasingly information systems need to be accessible by different parties involved in the production system at any time. Systems therefore need to ensure data security with different levels of user permissions, and business rules for synchronisation.

What do you think? Could the use of EID and in-field data capture be something you could leverage in your business? Will marketers and consumers benefit from the increased confidence and ability to differentiate? Leave your comments below.