Electronic identification (EID) of sheep is set to be implemented in the UK and the rest of the EU on 1 January 2010, less than two years away and could yield massive benefits for the industry.
But, says Richard Webber of Shearwell Data, unless farmers grasp the opporunities it offers it will simply become another burden on the sector. “EID can be used to massive effect for improving on-farm management and productivity, but this will require a massive step change for the industry and much greater integration between farmers, processors and their intermediaries.”
Mr Webber believes that using EID as a management tool can aid breeding plans and allow farmers to identify sheep which are making the greatest contribution to farm income and profitability.
“Having used EID on my own flock for more than 10 years, I have been able to allocate lamb income against individual ewes and hence record what contribution each ewe makes to flock income. In our three-crop ewes I have some which have reared lambs worth a total of more than £300 and others which have only had lambs totalling £78.
“This has allowed me to split ewes into five different groups according to their total earnings and now we only breed from ewes in thetop two tiers. Over time this has improved the flock’s earning potential and hence profitability,” he says.
But these advances require accurate recording and software to analyse the resulting information, he adds. “Having the data is one thing, what you do with the data is quite another.”
To make best use of the information abattoirs will need to record EIDs at slaughter and pass this information along with slaughter data back to finishers so they can relate it back to the animal’s parents to inform breeding decisions.
And while this may seem a burden, Mr Webber reckons that provided information is sent to producers electronically, data input is minimal.
Beyond economic and productivity data, EID can also yield significant benefits in terms of on-farm recording, including vet medicine records, movement information and field management records.
“All regulatory burdens can be overcome quickly and simply using EID to record the information required, particularly when it comes to movement information and vet medicine records. Using a hand-held data recorder means simple tasks, such as drenching or vaccinating can be recorded as they are undertaken.”
An in-line EID reader, such as a race reader, makes this task even simpler, as sheep identities are recorded as they pass by the reader and each animal can then be allocated to a treatment.
But for these benefits to be felt farmers will have to make significant investments in on-farm hardware and software, with the most cost-effective hand-held recorder costing about £1400 and a race reader about £1200. “There are cheaper hand-held devices available, but I believe it is essential to have one which farmers are able to key data into manually, so even when sheep are not being handled, information can be entered using the sheep’s visual tag to indentify it.”
All of this, though, is far beyond what EU rules will require farmers to do in 2010, he says. “The most basic requirement of the legislation is for farmers to identify sheep with an EID device. It’s that simple and the only extra cost for farmers will be the increased cost of an electronic tag over a visual one. At the moment our electronic tags are 75p each, although for large volume orders that could be nearer 60p.”
The costs of on-farm recording gear could also fall as more farmers take it on board. “Simply identifying sheep without using the EID device as a means of recording data is a negative step. It adds a cost to the industry for no benefit. What we need is for EID to be used to improve management and provide benefits beyond the costs.
“Recording movement data electronically would also result in significantly less paperwork for farmers and allow movements information to be sent to Trading Standards in electronic format, even from a mobile phone,” believes Mr Webber.
On farm, producers could also see benefits by recording lamb performance from different areas of farms. This could help indentify pastures where sheep perform poorly, aiding reseeding plans and reducing reliance on bought-in feeds.
And he is convinced this could offer benefits in terms of disease management, too. “At the moment there is a significant time-lag between movements occurring and information being received by Trading Standards EID could allow it to happen in real time.
“I’ve already been able to register a calf birth with BCMS from my mobile phone, so there’s no reason why movement information can’t be managed the same way.”
But this would need investment by other parts of the industry, including hauliers, markets, abattoirs and, most importantly, government. “At the moment DEFRA has no plans to implement a national database to record sheep EIDs, something every other EU nation plans to do. Without a database EID is redundant and provides few benefits to industry.”
In Mr Webber’s ideal vision, sheep identities would be recorded at birth, at every movement and at death, providing complete traceability of every sheep from field to fork and reducing the paperwork burden on farmers.
“If hauliers invested in EID reading equipment for vehicles, they would be able to record the identity of every animal boarding and disembarking their vehicles and report the movement to a national database. The same is true of markets and abattoirs, with markets recording animal movements in and out of markets and abattoirs recording every sheep as it passes down the slaughter line.”
Equipping a lorry would cost about £4000, while a market would cost about £10,000 depending on throughput and an abattoir would need to spend about £6000 on hardware. “There are issues over market throughputs, but most scenarios could be managed.”
All of these benefits rely on sensible implentation of EID in the UK, he warns. “The biggest stumbling block is how EID numbers are allocated to animals. There are two ways of doing this: What You See is What You Get (WYSIWYG) or relational.
“With WYSIWYG, the 12-digit EID number would also be the visual identifier, but these numbers are random and would not relate to the current system, which uses a flock number and individual number related to the farm’s holding number.
“The relational option would mean sticking with the current system of tag numbers and allocating EIDs to tags once they are in place. This will be much simpler and avoid having to completely rethink the system. It would also mean sticking with a system farmers understand rather than working with random numbers which will mean nothing to anyone,” says Mr Webber.
Moving to WYSIWYG will mean having to replace both visual and EID devices at the same time and will mean regathering sheep to insert new identification devices after losses are initially found and replacement tags have been ordered and delivered, he adds.
“I reckon this could cost the industry about £40m a year in lost time. However, using the relational system would mean replacements could be cross-referenced to visual tags, so they could be inserted as replacements when the loss is spotted, saving the need to regather at a later date.”
When does EID come into force?
What will farmers have to do?
What will it cost?
What happens when an EID device is lost?
What does the rest of the industry have to do?