Source and Trace system moves beyond basic animal traceability scheme

AngusPure Source and Trace (APST) is an interesting development in the whole complex matrix of animal identification and traceability which provides Angus breeders with a cost effective way of recording details of their herds for the combined purpose of stock management and herd improvement, while enhancing the industry leadership position of the AngusPure brand. But it’s important to recognise what the scheme aims to achieve and how it fits in with other traceability systems, specifically NAIT.

When I last wrote on this topic for the Angus Cattleman two years ago, I spent most of my article urging beef producers to get in behind making sure the NAIT programme was introduced as quickly as possible for market access and biosecurity purposes, noting that Federated Farmers was fully supportive of the scheme and its objectives. Two years on, NAIT still isn’t in operation, largely because of continued objections from Federated Farmers. It has now prepared a business case to be presented to Cabinet early this year which, if accepted, means it won’t be in place until the end of 2011 at the earliest. Judging from this project’s track record to date, it will be lucky to make it before 2013!

In the meantime Federated Farmers’ most important person in the traceability debate, the Meat and Fibre Chairman at the time, Keith Kelly, is no longer involved and the present incumbent, Bruce Wills, is more sceptical of the scheme’s value for money to farmers. In addition Don Nicolson, the President, appears to be no more supportive than his predecessor, having failed to get a satisfactory answer to Federated Farmers’ original questions about the scheme’s costs and benefits. So it’s even more important to make a balanced assessment of the merits of the different traceability schemes and their impact on the producer.

In my article in 2008, I assumed the voluntary NAIT scheme would be in place within three months and noted the benefits to Angus breeders of adopting animal ID and traceability for animal treatments, weight gain, pasture management and breeding records. Well, none of those benefits has changed, just the timeframe for introducing the national scheme. I’m very pleased to see Performance Beef Breeders has launched APST in partnership with HerdMASTER Software and Allflex to be able to start capturing the benefits of herd recording for Angus breeders.

Assuming NAIT is approved, it’s critically important for APST to interface easily with no duplication of tags or data entry requirements for farmers which I’m assured will be the case. While I understand Federated Farmers’ main wish is to ensure farmers don’t have to carry unnecessary costs, I think they should now focus on ensuring system flexibility, so there is no duplication in meeting the needs of the core traceability scheme. But the longer NAIT is delayed, the more possible it is that schemes like APST will find it difficult to interface.

At this point there is no conflict between the objectives of NAIT and APST which are complementary, but quite different.

NAIT is designed to be a national scheme, recording the ownership and location of the cattle at the time they were tagged and all animal movements since then, recording any saleyard transfers or paddock sales and concluding with slaughter. The primary purpose of NAIT is to guarantee traceback of livestock for biosecurity reasons in the event of a disease outbreak and provide assurances to overseas regulatory agencies for market access. A secondary purpose is to meet the increasingly stringent demands of overseas customers which begs a very large question. How long will it be before individual or, at least, mob ID of sheep is required? Because if sheep remain outside the scheme, there is no guarantee of comprehensive traceability, to satisfy UK and European regulatory agencies and supermarket chains, the most vocal agitators for full product traceback.

APST, along with any other performance based programme, goes well beyond the basic requirements of NAIT, because it has different objectives, but to be comprehensively and nationally effective it needs the base information and support provided by the national system. This is one reason it’s important for these schemes to ensure full interface with NAIT, the other reason being the avoidance of costly duplication of tagging, data recording, reading and software systems.

There are two dangers, if NAIT is not implemented soon: first, New Zealand risks trade sanctions or market access barriers in the event of a biosecurity incursion, second, in default of a base national ID system, other schemes such as APST will move in different directions without a core technology on which they all agree. At this point assurances about compatibility from NAIT and Performance Beef Breeders means that breeders can commit to APST without concerns they will be making a larger investment, either in time or money, than they expected.

For Angus breeders there are two big benefits from embracing APST – the information they get from the HerdMASTER software programme will enable them to measure performance criteria which will help with farm management and improving breeding herd characteristics; equally important will be the carcase feedback from the meat processor which will then be able to be merged with the on farm performance statistics.

Returning to the topic of cross species traceability which is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about, I can see a benefit for those breeders who also have a sheep breeding operation. As a longer term initiative to improve breeding performance across all operations, the lessons learned from and investment in APST may well be transferable to commercial sheep breeding. This will result in increased economies of scale, because the activities can then be spread across the total farming operation.

The eventual introduction of mandatory traceabilitry for sheep is one reason for Federated Farmers’ reluctance to commit to NAIT, believing a high frequency tag will be the answer to mob ID situations and, therefore, a delay to the introduction of a low frequency based scheme will enable this to be explored. The trouble is that technology is changing all the time, so it’s not sensible to keep hanging on for the next technology innovation in case it provides a complete solution, as a reason for not supporting a logical initiative that works well in currently specified situations.

On a broader industry basis, animal ID and traceability are essential components of an improved relationship, based on professionalism, trust and mutual interest, between producer and processor. The technology will also mean that the relationship between the breeder and client for commercial stock can also develop further, based on transparency of information exchanged. This will ideally mean that the breeder will receive processor feedback on the progeny’s carcase performance from the client or direct from the processor.

My wish for 2010 is that animal ID and traceability should move beyond the argument about whether it’s an unnecessary extravagance or essential cost to a focus on what it can do for the industry as a whole. This is why I’m fully in favour of APST, but I will be even more supportive if it can achieve co-operation across breeds and, dare I say, across species. Mark Stevens from Performance Beef Breeders tells me other breeds have indicated interest in APST, which would presumably require a more generic brand name, while other Angus programmes could also take part. It makes little sense for there to be more than one source and trace programme, as each breed society’s interests should be the same.

If farmers want co-operation across the meat industry, here is a great opportunity to use technology to build an integrated chain between breeder and processor, involving all the links in the chain. This will help the process of developing farmer engagement with the overseas and domestic market place.

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