It has been just over a week since a national scheme requiring all cattle to be electronically tagged came into force. Peter Watson takes a look at how well the launch has gone.
Even after spending eight years and millions of dollars putting it together and promoting it around the country, it was always going to be an uphill battle convincing 70,000 cattle owners to sign up to the National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) scheme by the July 1 start date.
So far, 37,400 – from large runholders to lifestylers with just a few cattle – have taken the plunge. Two-thirds are beef farmers and the rest run dairy cattle.
Many left it to the last minute, swamping the phone lines and forcing NAIT Ltd, the industry-government body set up in 2010 to develop and implement the scheme, to double its call centre staff.
This helped to reduce the bottleneck, which at one stage saw a staggering 30 per cent of calls not answered.
NAIT Ltd chief executive Russell Burnard concedes he miscalculated how many farmers would ring up with queries about how to register.
"I apologise to those who couldn't get through.
"Where people have left a message, we are calling them back, and the response from farmers to our call centre has been generally positive."
Mr Burnard insists he is happy with the sign-up rate, which he says is running ahead of expectations, despite farmers having had plenty of time to get ready. About 5600 of them attended a just-completed national roadshow.
"Like most New Zealanders, some will adopt it early and get prepared, and others won't do it until they have to.
"It was never going to be perfect on day one."
While farmers have three years to tag their cattle, any stock leaving their farms for sale or grazing must now be tagged – and that requires the owner to be registered with NAIT.
Otherwise, Mr Burnard says, farmers are likely to face increased costs and difficulty selling their animals.
For instance, it could mean a saleyard refuses to accept animals that aren't tagged, forcing the farmer to either transport them back home at his own cost or pay the saleyard to tag them.
They are also likely to fetch less at the meatworks.
While there was a surge of untagged animals sold before the July 1 deadline, surveys of stock sales since then show that about 95 per cent of cattle have tags, Mr Burnard says. "Most have stepped up the the plate."
Ad Feedback However, it seems the Nelson farming community is still scrambling to get ready.
PGG Wrightson Nelson livestock manager Peter Taylor says about half the 50 cattle offered for sale at Brightwater in the week before the deadline had the required NAIT tags.
Nearly all of the larger farmers have tagged their animals, but those with smaller herds are lagging behind, he says.
"It's probably going to be a bit more difficult in Nelson, where there are a lot of lifestylers."
Some farmers expect Wrightson to do much of the NAIT work for them, but that is not its job, Mr Taylor says.
"I sold some cattle the other day, and the farmer just presumed we were going to read them (scan the NAIT numbers), and I said, `If you sold your herd of cows, you wouldn't get your agent to pregnancy test them'."
While agents carry wands to read tags, "we are not going to make a practice of it".
Farmers will be charged every time their cattle are read. Mr Taylor won't reveal the fee, but says it includes an administration charge.
Some transport carriers are already doing the same.
Nor can farmers rely on livestock agents to do their scanning at the privately owned Brightwater saleyards, because they are often too busy.
Mr Taylor says an independent person has been appointed to do the NAIT work at the saleyards and to visit farms, and should be up and running this week.
Ian Parkes, chairman of the company that owns the Brightwater saleyards, says it is in the process of becoming an accredited venue "to deal with cock-ups", but it is up to stock buyers and sellers to make sure they have their NAIT numbers.
"What needs to be stressed is that you can't go to the saleyards unless you are registered."
Mr Burnard says farmers will be given a period of grace before NAIT gets tough, although it prefers to take a "softly, softly" approach.
"It will be education and information for the rest of the year, but we may start to ramp it up after that if people start ignoring the rules."
The Ministry of Primary Industries is expected to release a consultation document on a range of penalties, including fines, in the next two months, he says.
Mr Burnard acknowledges that getting lifestylers in particular to comply will not be easy, although he is heartened that about 60 per cent of those already signed up own properties of less than 50 hectares.
"I'm the first to admit we don't know who all these people are, but we are trying to get the message out through the media, social media and blogs."
He's banking on those who handle lifestylers' stock, such as saleyards, meat works and commercial farmers they have traded with, to educate them about their NAIT responsibilities.
Those who graze dairy cows are another group who could do with a reminder, Mr Burnard says.
"We spent quite a bit of time with DairyNZ to get the message out to dairy farmers that if they are sending animals out for winter grazing, to tag them beforehand. Some have and some haven't."
He wants those who haven't to do so when the stock returns home, and to make sure the owner of the grazing property is registered for the next trip.
Beef + Lamb's northern South Island director, Andy Fox, reckons the NAIT startup has gone "reasonably well".
An initial sceptic, he was put on the NAIT stakeholder reference group to make sure farmers got the best deal they could.
Mr Fox says that although there have been a few wrinkles with the scheme, the "sky hasn't fallen in".
Gavin O'Donnell, chairman of the Nelson branch of Federated Farmers, which originally opposed the scheme, expects that commercial farmers and the more savvy lifestylers will accept the need for it.
"But a lot of stock is shifted between lifestyle properties, that flies under the radar and I'm not sure what NAIT's plan is for that.
"Anything handled by a livestock agent should be OK, and anything that goes through the Alliance [plant at Stoke] should be captured. It's what's traded between individuals through Trade Me or word of mouth that gives me some concern."
Benefits, but higher costs as well
To Wakefield farmer John Levy, NAIT is a "bit over the top", although he can see the benefits.
"To a farmer of my size with 60 cattle, who breeds 60 calves and doesn't weigh them every week to seek how they are progressing, it's just another cost, because we had Animal Health Board tags, so we had all our herd and stock numbers and barcode."
Now he has replaced his visual tags with "fancy" electronic ones, which has cost him about $6 an animal.
"The days of fighting (NAIT) are over. It's law, and we have got to go with it."
It is now about becoming a more professional farmer and satisfying the demands of overseas markets.
"People these days want to know where their produce has come from, and this is a way of tracking every animal."
Mr Levy – one of about 25 farmers who attended a Beef + Lamb field day at Kim and Judith Rowe's Upper Stanley Brook farm last week – said he had done what he could to be ready for NAIT.
He had registered early, tagged all his calves and attended the local roadshow, but wouldn't be forking out several thousand dollars to buy the latest scanning and scales technology to record his NAIT numbers. Instead, he had entered them manually on his computer.
NAIT Ltd had been good to deal with, he said. "I sent them an email with some questions and I got a call back 10 minutes later."
Tapawera farmer Stuart Bryant also said he had found registering for NAIT straightforward. "Their website is well signposted and, once you get into it, is very user-friendly."
He said his farm had bought a stick reader, now almost outdated, to record NAIT numbers, because he sold and transferred stock to other farmers.
"I'm sure the system will be useful for traceability, recording where animals are, and for biosecurity."
Cathy Peter, who farms with husband Ashley at Dovedale, said that while they didn't have any beef cattle, they had registered because they grazed cows whose movements needed to be recorded.
The online process had been "hassle-free". They had bought scales and a wand in the event they went into beef.
Most of those at the field day had registered without problems, although there were some grumbles about the cost of some of the technology being promoted and the reliability of some types of tags.
Jansen Travis, of Farm IQ, said NAIT was a potentially very valuable system because it allowed farmers to record a wide range of attributes about an animal and to conduct "multi-criteria drafting", but there was little point in them spending $5000 to $6000 on technology unless they used the data it produced.
He said the older, more expensive HDX tags seemed more reliable than the new FDX ones, which could be affected by power leads, fluorescent lights and steel-framed yards.
Beef + Lamb northern South Island director Andy Fox reminded farmers that all they needed was their NAIT number if they were sending stock to an accredited saleyard or slaughter plant.
For animals that were deemed too dangerous to tag, farmers would have to pay $13 a beast when it was slaughtered, which would rise to $19 in the second year and $24 in the third year, he said.
While the cost might appear high, it was to encourage farmers to comply.
Animals that lost their tags would have to be redone and NAIT informed, and because they lacked lifetime traceability, they would probably be worth slightly less at the meatworks, he said.
AT A GLANCE
What is NAIT, and how does it work?
It is an electronic system of identifying and tracing animals, which its promoters say will enhance New Zealand's ability to respond quickly to a food safety scarce or biosecurity threat and give added confidence to our trading partners. It is also seen as an opportunity for farmers to increase productivity by identifying superior animals.
It became mandatory for cattle on July 1. Deer will join in March next year. NAIT links individual animals, people and property through electronic ear tags and a central database. Anyone in charge of animals must register with NAIT and obtain a NAIT number.
Newborn animals must be tagged with NAIT-approved tags by six months of age or before they are moved off the property. Existing stock must be tagged within three years unless they are moved off farm.
Animal movements to NAIT-accredited meat processors and saleyards will be recorded for animal owners. Movements between farms will need to be recorded by the people sending and receiving animals.
Farmers pay $5 to $7 for an electronic tag, which includes a $1.10 (excluding GST) levy to help pay for the scheme. They also pay another $2.35 (excluding GST ) for every beast slaughtered, on top of their own labour costs.
NAIT is funded two-thirds by farmers and a third by the Government, whose share has to be paid back. In the year to June 2011, it spent $2.93m. For more information, see nait.co.nz.
- © Fairfax NZ News
Source: Argentine Beef Packers S.A.
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