By Allan Barber*
In July last year I raised the problem of accurately identifying and recording all cattle movements, citing the issues experienced by a farmer friend who had no success in reconciling stock on his farm with NAIT’s records.
The farmer had contacted NAIT which eventually got back to him, but the process of reconciliation was several weeks out of date.
NAIT’s website states “New Zealand's National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) scheme is an identification system that links people, property and livestock. It was developed to identify and trace livestock (cattle and deer) within New Zealand and can provide, fast, reliable and accurate information on stock location and movements.” There are three primary purposes of introducing the system – to improve consumer confidence, disease management and food traceability. A 2009 analysis estimated a benefit of $141 billion to the economy over 20 years from introducing the scheme.
I would like to be able to report an improvement in performance since July, but unfortunately a different version of the same sort of problem still appears to be happening, indicating the scheme has not yet got to grips with the issues.
As a specific example cattle bought at a sale in December in two different lots and sold by different agents were registered and notified to the purchaser at different times, one within 24 hours, the second a month later. Admittedly the Christmas and New Year period intervened. Of the second lot, five cattle were wrongly numbered, but a request to NAIT for information about where the cattle actually were has resulted in complete silence, now more than two months after the sale.
My friend is firmly of the opinion NAIT should be able to identify those cattle which don’t have the correct number and advise him whom they belong to or make arrangements to contact the owner. He also observes most farmers will probably ignore the discrepancy and leave it to NAIT to find out without notifying them. The result of that will be an increasingly inaccurate database. It is almost certain the information gap occurs at the point of sale when the selling stock agency transfers the animal data to the new owner via the purchasing agency.
After a conversation with OSPRI’s CEO Michelle Edge and Group Manager Programme Design and Partnerships Stu Hutchings, I’m not convinced there’s any particular urgency to overcome the problems. I may be doing NAIT an injustice, but there appears to be no real acceptance there is a problem in the first place. In response to my question why there was no plan to ensure all farms were equipped with scanners, I was told scanners were only one input and the present system of agents providing scanning for the farmer was considered adequate. This doesn’t tie in with what farmers have told me.
My impression is the performance after less than four years since the Act was passed into law in 2012 is considered perfectly acceptable when compared with other countries including Australia who have introduced mandatory traceability. New Zealand’s target is to achieve 97.7% of herd movements sooner than the Australian system which has taken 20 years to reach 98%. After four years NAIT is still very much work in progress, because no system is foolproof.
Edge is keen not to judge the performance of NAIT too soon or against criteria that are too strict. To put the system’s performance in context, she considers it is more important to identify where the risks are and to quantify them than to aim for an unrealistically high percentage achievement level. Putting this into the New Zealand context Edge maintains a disease outbreak would be within a fairly closely confined area and therefore NAIT would be quite capable of identifying over 90% of the cattle movements in and out of that area.
In a perfect world this may be fine, but the inaccurate records supplied by the selling agent at the saleyards, as in the case of the neighbouring farmer who was supplied with wrongly numbered stock, are a problem. In the case of an FMD outbreak, this inaccuracy could be fatal.
To be fair to NAIT, 92% of the national herd is now registered and this rate of uptake has accelerated over the past 12 months through workshops and education. It is not up to NAIT to police the level of farmer uptake which is actually the responsibility of MPI; OSPRI’s role is to introduce the animal ID and traceability system on behalf of the industry and the government.
However what concerns me is the apparent complacency of NAIT’s management in allowing an organisational culture which appears to regard two months’ delay in replying to queries as acceptable practice. If this continues, conscientious farmers will throw their hands up and stop reporting errors.
Farmers I have spoken to are frustrated by several issues: the delays in getting cattle registered, the problem getting answers when records are not correct, the lack of common readability between the two types of tag, and the impression they are bearing a cost which is not yet justified by the performance of the traceability system.
I’m not sure this is the outcome New Zealand farmers bought into when NAIT was finally passed into law.
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*Allan Barber is a commentator on agribusiness, especially the meat industry, and lives in the Matakana Wine Country. He is chairman of the Warkworth A&P Show Committee. You can contact him by email at email@example.com or read his blog here ». This article first appeared in Farmers Weekly and is here with permission.