PREMIUM PRICES ONLY IF ENTIRE HERD IS INVOLVED
ALTHOUGH electronic tagging of cattle has been used on a large scale in Scotland for the past three years, with the farmers involved pleased with the management benefits, premium prices have not materialised. That, however, could change if the Scottish Executive implements plans to introduce electronic tagging for the entire national herd.
Ray Calder, one of the founding members of Scottish Borders Tag, a farmers business established three years ago to encourage the use of electronic identification (EID), hopes the executive will be brave enough to implement the scheme.
"Until now it has been a chicken and egg situation. Retailers have been impressed with our traceability and foolproof identification, but have not been willing to offer any price premium because we dont have enough cattle involved to offer them the guaranteed volumes they want," she says.
Abattoirs, too, have been reluctant to invest in the technology required to read electronic tags because of the limited numbers of cattle involved.
Mrs Calder, who runs 110 beef cows at Billiemains, Duns, Berwickshire, first realised the potential benefits of electronic identification back in 1996 after the imposition of the beef export ban.
"At the time, I was on the local Scottish NFU area committee. We discussed the beef ban in detail and realised then that our paper-based cattle tracing system was not good enough.
"So we set up a small working party and decided to establish a pilot scheme to assess EID. Initially, 19 farmers in the Borders were involved, electronically tagging all the cattle on their farms," she says.
Tags, manufactured by Allflex, were chosen in preference to other systems of EID, such as boluses or sub-cutaneous identi-chips, for a number of reasons. Farmers did not like the idea of putting boluses into day-old calves. There were also welfare concerns about inserting implants, as well as fears that they might migrate in the animal, potentially entering the food chain. "That would have been a disaster for our industry," Mrs Calder says.
After a long, but eventually successful, battle to get MAFF to accept electronic buttons as an approved secondary tag, the pilot scheme then expanded.
"We had identified about 55 farmers who were interested in joining. So we went back to Scottish Enterprise – which had provided some initial funding to launch the pilot scheme – and asked for more help. It said yes, but only if we formed a properly structured business. Scottish Borders Tag was the result, set up in August 1998."
Ministers and officials from the Scottish Office visited the project at the end of that year. As a result, they commissioned a feasibility study to assess the potential benefits of adopting EID.
Mrs Calder points out that farmers would not be the only beneficiaries from adopting the technology, with reduced paper work and accurate herd records. Government inspections would be simpler and much less time-consuming.
Half a day
"I had an inspection the other day. The man who phoned said it would probably take a day-and-a-half. In the end, we finished in half a day," she says.
Accurate herd records are essential if Scotland is ever to reclaim lost beef export markets, Mrs Calder believes. "We havent gone on to a farm yet where there were no errors in paper-based systems. The biggest problem is transcription error – where an animals number has been read but written down incorrectly.
"If the Scottish Executive adopts a national scheme, then the whole industry can look forward to getting rid of some of the paperwork and bureaucracy that is engulfing farmers."
• Reduced paperwork.
• Accurate herd records.
• Inspections faster and simpler.