17 November 2000

ELECTRONIC EARTAGGING – HOWITWORKEDOUT

With two years experience of using an electronic ear

tagging system, which he won at the last Smithfield Show,

one Warks producer gives his verdict. Hannah Velten reports

WHILE Warks beef producer, Rob Evans, finds recording cattle details now quicker and more accurate in his Simmental herd with an electronic tagging system, technical limitations are causing some frustration.

Although Mr Evans, who farms at Abbey Farm, Wroxall, Solihull, had thought about buying an electronic tagging system for his 160 cattle, he felt the cost was prohibitive. But winning a system and enough tags for his herds meant no outlay.

Two separate herds are run over 81ha (200 acres) of river meadows, a 100-head pedigree herd and a 60-head commercial group.

Most pedigree bulls are sold off farm, some going to Perth Bull Sales. All cattle are finished at 650kg liveweight and carcasses sold through Meat Gold Direct, another family-run business.

On farm the system is mainly used for weighing, but is capable of more. "I am sure that we do not use the system properly, but it is having the time to learn," says Mr Evans.

"We weigh the pedigree bulls to compare them for daily liveweight gain. Any bull that makes the grade and does us justice, will be kept entire," he says.

"For the commercial group, we record weaning weights, DLWG before and after housing and weight before slaughter."

The systems hand-held receiver is plugged into the electronic scales and once the animals ear tag has been scanned, its weight is automatically recorded. This information is later downloaded directly from the reader onto computer software associated with the electronic tagging system.

Speeding up

This speeds up the process of weighing and eliminates human error, says Mr Evans.

"It is a handy tool if you are weighing finishing cattle every few weeks and paying attention to the details of cattle growth," he says.

The system can be programmed to record details such as movement, deaths, births and treatments. The software will also bring up activities done on a specific day.

"You can programme in pneumonia vaccinations in the winter, which makes sure you do not miss animals," says Mr Evans.

The disc-shaped button tag containing the microchip is the size of a 10p piece and costs about £3. They are inserted into the calfs ear within 24 hours of birth and meet official MAFF requirements for a secondary tag.

Details recorded at this time mean an early start to pedigree papers and identification procedures, says Mr Evans.

Because he is inserting the electronic buttons closer to the ear canal than normal tags, he says he has not lost any, as they are not easily ripped out.

But when a primary plastic tag is missing, all animal details can still be found by scanning the electronic button.

The main drawback of the system, he says, is that the animal has to be on top of the reader before it will detect the tag. "It does not have enough range; you need to be able to use it at about 5-6ft to be practicable.

"It would also be handy when moving cattle to catch their numbers as they go through the field gate so they are recorded as a bunch rather than having to put each one in a crush."

One technical advance that Mr Evans would like to see concerns a network of linked readers so that cattle details could be accessed by anyone. "If I bought a stock bull that had an electronic tag, I would like to be able to bring up its details on my reader."

Only recording

Another problem is that the tagging system software will not provide management information, it only records data rather than calculating any figures such as DLWG. This means that figures in the tagging programme also have to be entered into a separate management program.

Frustrations have also occurred at weighing time when communication errors between the reader and the scales are common. "You have to disconnect and reconnect the whole system and check the batteries. It is annoying, but Oxley – which supplied the system – is good at sorting things out."

Plans are under way to set up another e-mail address to download data from the tagging system straight to the British Cattle Movement Service, which will ease the burden of paperwork and prevent genuine mistakes, explains Mr Evans. &#42

Above: Records of the 160-head Simmental herds are now more accurate and the recording process is quicker says Rob Evans. Left and below: The hand held reader detects the electronic ear tag and all the calves details can be accessed in the field or farm office.

E-TAG PROS AND CONS

Pros

&#8226 Fast, accurate weighing.

&#8226 Early start to identification process.

&#8226 Button tags not easily ripped out.

Cons

&#8226 Receiver has insufficient range.

&#8226 Cost of the system and tags.

&#8226 Electronic communication failures.