CATTLE producers are reporting high ongoing rates of National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) tag losses, almost 14 years after it became compulsory in Australia for all cattle to have an NLIS device at the time of sale for traceability purposes.
Affected producers say tag losses are not only adding up to significant financial costs and time delays but also causing associated losses in market value when disruptions to lifetime traceability restrict access for cattle to premium-paying markets such as the EU.
An early intended benefit of the national livestock identification system was the potential it offered for producers to take advantage of whole-of-life data recording across their breeding herd, but concerns about tag longevity and lack of confidence in retention standards mean many producers have chosen to only apply NLIS tags to breeding cattle just before they are sold.
Limited usage of NLIS tags across breeding herds has also reduced the potential value the system offers to provide accurate national cattle herd-size estimates for industry.
How big is the issue?
Obtaining a definitive picture of the extent of tag retention problems for producers across Australia is challenging for a range of reasons.
There is currently no requirement under NLIS rules for lost or non-functioning devices to be reported or recorded by producers.
Where producers do report issues with lost or non-functioning tags to a tag supplier, the supplier is required to report that information to the Integrity Systems Company (ISC), which manages NLIS.
Producer representatives say a lot of tag retention issues occur but they are not often formally reported by producers, because it is seen as a time-consuming process.
The Integrity Systems Company (ISC) said in a statement to Beef Central (printed in full below this article) that it acknowledges there are challenges related to NLIS tag retention for some producers in certain regions.
CEO Dr Jane Weatherley said the ISC is continuing to work to find suitable solutions for producers who experience higher than expected rates of tag loss.
While lost and replaced devices can be recorded, Dr Weatherley acknowledged that only a small number of producers actually do this.
To help to provide a clearer picture of the issue she said all producers who are experiencing problems should either contact the relevant tag manufacturer, or notify ISC via the NLIS Cattle Device Complaint Form found on the ISC website.
She said NLIS database records can provide an indicator of the number of replacement devices that are being used, by looking at the total number of post breeder tags purchased as a percentage of total tags purchased.
On that measure, she said, over the past five years post-breeder devices have represented only 3 percent of total tag purchases.
Additionally, Dr Weatherley said the ISC generally receives less than three formal complaints each year regarding tag retention or performance.
That picture contrasts with anecdotal feedback Beef Central has received in discussions with several producers about tag retention in recent weeks as face-to-face industry events have returned with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions.
Beef Central has asked about a dozen cattle producers of varying enterprise sizes about tag retention at a handful recent industry events.
While only a very small sample, every producer with whom the question was raised responded that tag losses were an ongoing cause of problems, and an issue that they thought needed to be addressed.
Among them was Central Queensland producer Peter Quinn, who with his wife Bev runs between 6000 and 8000 cattle on two properties.
The Quinns run a northern breeding property and bring cattle south to their Middlemount property, meaning they read a couple of thousand tags per year.
For over a decade they used tags from one manufacturer, but said they found that from around the fourth year onwards, the tags began to deteriorate, with buttons succumbing to a ‘star’ split from the centre outwards before gradually fragmenting into pieces.
Mr Quinn said 20 percent of tags were usually lost by the fifth year after application, and losses then continued at a rate of around 20 percent per year after that.
“By the time you get to eight-year-old you basically have none left,” he said.
‘By the time you get to eight-year-old you basically have none left’
After several years of expressing his concern to the manufacturer, which offered him free tags in response, Mr Quinn said he decided to switch to another brand.
That was five years ago, and Mr Quinn said he is happy with the new brand so far and has not yet experienced any problems.
But he added that the real test will still lie ahead, as problems in his experience typically started from around the fifth year after application.
Mr Quinn said he wasn’t interested in free tags as a solution, and just wanted the problem to be fixed. He said he believed tag manufacturers should have adequate quality assurance systems to ensure their tags do not drop below minimum standards.
“Imagine the amount of money these companies have made selling me and thousands of others a substandard tag,” he said.
“I am still suffering from the repercussions of that now.
“We obviously need some industry checking and regulating of it.
“You know what happens to us as beef producers, if we produce a substandard article, we don’t get the same money for it.
“I don’t know whether it is the amount of polymer they put in the plastics, I am not a plastic expert, but in this day and age we can make a poly tank that stands out in the sun for 30 or 40 years, but we can’t make a plastic tag that goes in the ear of a cow and can last 10-15 years.”
A number of representatives of companies supplying tags have told Beef Central that considerable ongoing research and technological expertise continues to be invested into tag retention issues and developing new technologies.
Past concerns with tags were not likely to reflect current performance standards, company representatives said, and some also pointed to promising results with new research that is underway, but too early yet to make claims around. (Beef Central’s next article on this topic will explore in greater detail various evolving technologies in the livestock identification field)
Some company representatives took exception to suggestions tags were substandard, and said that in addition to substantial investments in research, suppliers are also required to reach accreditation standards set by SAFEMEAT, and to monitor in-market performance of their tags according to SAFEMEAT’s guidelines.
NLIS accreditation process for tags
To achieve NLIS accreditation, tags are required to meet minimum standards of retention.
The Integrity Systems Company says this process includes subjecting tags to rigorous laboratory analysis and three-year field trials involving approximately 1200 cattle across up to four separate properties, during which tag retention rates must not drop below three percent.
During field trials the first assessment is made at six months, where losses of below 1.5 percent need to be achieved for the trial to continue. Reviews are then made at 12 months, 24 months and 36 months for retention and transponder compliance.
Under current license agreements, tag manufacturers are obliged to report to ISC any complaints they receive from producers.
The ISC said SAFEMEAT’s NLIS Standards Committee also conducts ongoing reviews and assessments of the performance of accredited devices.
Producers reporting tag losses have told Beef Central they don’t believe existing processes governing tag standards are adequate.
Among the concerns they have expressed are that the three-year field trials are not sufficiently independent because they are run by the tag companies.
There is also a view that three-year trials are inadequate because tag problems tend to show from year four and onwards. Some producers want to see more stringent requirements for ongoing laboratory testing after tags are accredited to ensure standards and monitored and maintained, and stronger penalties for tag suppliers when tags fall below acceptable standards of retention.
But there are also questions around what is a realistic lifespan for a tag at current pricing levels. Is it feasible to expect suppliers to be able to produce a tag that is guaranteed to last the 8 to 15 year lifespan of a breeding animal within a price point of just $3 to $4?
Current NLIS standards stipulate that RFID tags for cattle must be able to maintain their structural integrity, and printing must remain visually readable, for at least seven years under Australian conditions.
The ISC said it is currently undertaking plastics research to try to understand the root causes of tag degradation, which could be leading to higher than expected tag loss rates in the field.
It also added that application technique can be a factor in tag loss: “The correct type of applicator in good working condition is essential and staff need to be trained in its use. Infection at the site can also be a contributing factor to tag loss, so good hygiene when applying tags is also required”.
Industry review underway
An industry review of NLIS device standards which has been overseen by consultant Angela Schuster and which has involved consultation with producers, tag manufacturers and other industry stakeholders, has been underway throughout this year.
It is understood the results and any recommendations to be made from the review are due for finalisation soon, a process that is deemed likely to result in updated national standards for NLIS devices in future to address ongoing tag retention issues.
Not just a ‘northern’ issue
Costs of tag losses tend to fall most heavily on producers in northern and western Australia where herd sizes tend to be larger and producers pay $3-$4 per tag.
But even in Victoria, where the average cattle herd size is smaller and NLIS tag costs are kept at around $1 per unit courtesy of a Statewide producer levy-funded subsidy scheme, some producers still express concerns related to tag retention.
“It varies enormously,” VFF livestock president Leonard Vallance told Beef Central.
“It depends on the type of country people are grazing cattle in, whether they have bushland, and the type of fencing, whether they feed hay in feeders or not, that sort of thing.
“Weld mesh seem to be anecdotally an issue, the cows love to scratch their ears on weldmesh gates.”
Mr Vallance operates a 9000ha beef and grain property in the Central Mallee, and said he has found that immersing NLIS tags in disinfectant prior to application is essential to improve retention rates in his environment.
“If you don’t have disinfectant on the tags when they go in, they get infected and they come out,” he said.
“We soak all our tags in Hibitane (disinfectant), it lubricates the tag and stops the infection. It is fairly dusty with a fairly high fly content where we are, so everything gets wet in straight Hibitane before we put it in.
“If the tags go in dry, they get infected with dust and flies and then of course the cow wants to scratch it.”
Mr Vallance’s view is that if a producer can provide evidence of deteriorated tags they should be replaced at no cost by the manufacturer.
“The farmer has bought them in good faith, you make the investment on the provision that it will last as long as it needs to, and if the product is faulty, then it should be replaced.
“It is no different to any other product you buy, if it is not fit for the purpose for which it was it bought, then it should be replaced.”
NEXT STORY: What do changes in technology mean for livestock identification now and in the future?
Keep an eye out for our next special report on this issue early in the New Year.
FULL ISC STATEMENT:
Comments from Integrity Systems Company CEO, Dr Jane Weatherley:
“We acknowledge the challenges related to National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) tag retention for some cattle producers in certain regions, and continue to work to find suitable and long-term solutions for producers who experience higher than expected rates of tag loss.
Importantly, the NLIS Animal Identification Technology Standards and Rules, determined by SAFEMEAT, have recently been updated to allow alternate technologies to be assessed against and recognised under the Standards.
This is an important first step to allow new and innovative animal identification solutions to be considered. We are also seeing rapidly emerging technologies which will allow for practical solutions such as autonomous livestock identification and real-time movement recording and tracking, made possible through improved connectivity.
ISC is working to develop these ideas through the investment of levies and with external funding from specialist commercial partners. This work clearly underpins the objectives of the Integrity System 2025 Strategy.
Currently, there is no requirement under NLIS for lost or non-functioning devices to be recorded. While lost and replaced devices can be recorded on the NLIS database, only a small number of producers do this. In order to get a clearer picture on the extent of the issue, I would encourage all producers who are experiencing issues to contact the relevant tag manufacturer or notify ISC via the NLIS Cattle Device Complaint Form found on the ISC website.
However, the NLIS database can provide an indicator of the number of replacement devices that are being used, by looking at the total number of post breeder tags purchased as a percentage of total tags purchased. Over the past 5 years post-breeder devices have represented 3% of total tag purchases.
ISC generally receives less than three formal complaints each year regarding tag retention or performance. Each complaint is assessed by ISC and responded to, including any follow-up action required by the tag manufacturer in relation to the complaint.
Under their license agreements, tag manufacturers are also obliged to report to ISC any complaints they receive from producers, detailing the nature of the complaint and the numbers of devices involved. Complaint registers are also reviewed by ISC during regular tag manufacturer audits.
If ISC notices a trend in complaints reported, further investigation is conducted. In some cases, this can lead to a recall of tags from identified faulty batches, and the requirement for the manufacturer to issue replacement tags to affected producers
Through SAFEMEAT’s NLIS Standards Committee, there is an on-going review and assessment of the performance of accredited devices, including consideration of tag improvements aimed at enhancing overall retention. Before devices are approved for use, they need to undergo laboratory analysis and field trials to ensure performance meets the requirements of the Standard before they can be fully approved for use.
Field trials for new devices are rigorous and generally involve approximately 1,200 head of cattle across up to 4 separate properties, and last for 3 years. The first assessment is made at 6 months where losses of below 1.5% need to be achieved for the trial to continue. Reviews are then made at 12 months, 24 months and 36 months for retention and transponder compliance.
ISC is also undertaking plastics research to try to understand the root causes of tag degradation, which could be leading to higher than expected tag loss rates in the field.
The research has highlighted some potential areas that may exacerbate tag degradation, but a definitive conclusion has not been reached. Further investigation is underway, but as a minimum, the research has provided a methodology to profile the makeup of tags, which may be useful in assessing product changes over time.
It is important to note that tag manufacturers also have a responsibility to conduct their own research and development and bring product related improvements to the market.
We also know application technique is also a factor in tag loss. The correct type of applicator in good working condition is essential and staff need to be trained in its use. Infection at the site can also be a contributing factor to tag loss, so good hygiene when applying tags is also required.
ISC works closely with SAFEMEAT and SAFEMEAT’s NLIS Standards Committee in the implementation of the NLIS Animal Identification Technology Approval Program. The NLIS Standards Committee is an independent group comprising technical experts, along with industry and government representatives, who provide advice to SAFEMEAT and ISC in relation to the Standards and Rules, including the performance of devices against the Standards.
There is no requirement under the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) for lost or non-functioning devices to be recorded on the NLIS database. While lost and replaced devices can be recorded on the NLIS database, only a small number of producers use this functionality.
ISC encourages producers to report issues with tag retention via the NLIS Cattle Device Complaint Form found on the ISC website.
A challenge for producers (particularly in larger northern herds) is providing evidence in relation to tag loss (e.g. which tags, from which manufacturer were applied to which animals – and when). Producers are encouraged to refer to their Devices Purchased Report accessible via their NLIS account to keep track of the tags that have been purchased and when. Additional records to identify the group of animals that tags have been applied to, and the date of application, is also useful to have on file.
Through SAFEMEAT’s NLIS Standards Committee, there is an on-going review and assessment of the performance of accredited devices, including consideration of tag improvements aimed at enhancing overall retention. Before devices are approved for use, they need to undergo laboratory analysis. Devices must also undergo a three-year field trial to ensure that their performance in the field meets the requirements of the Standard before they can be fully approved for use within NLIS.
Electronic devices must also undergo International Committee for Animal Recording (ICAR) performance and conformance testing every 5 years to maintain their ICAR certification.
Under the recently endorsed NLIS Animal Identification Technology Rules, ISC will be conducting more regular sampling of devices (both new devices and those that have been used in the field) to ensure devices are continuing to adhere to the Standards.”