ALTERNATIVE SYSTEM: Mark and Kate Wheal (pictured with daughter Lily), Wheal Farms, Beachport, are trialling the use of ultra high frequency tags in their sheep. They want the industry to be open to the latest technology.

High prices drive eID interest

A growing number of the state’s sheep producers are turning to electronic identification to improve the productivity of their flocks, but there are no plans to follow Vic’s lead and make it mandatory.

On January 1 last year, Vic became the first state to require all lambs to be electronically tagged and from March, saleyards will be required to scan these devices.

The Vic state government has been a strong backer, investing more than $20 million in subsidising tags at 35 cents each and equipment for producers and saleyards.

Livestock SA continues to support the present mob-based traceability scheme and president Joe Keynes says any uptake of sheep eID by SA flocks should remain voluntary.

“With high wool prices and high lamb prices, it is a good time for producers to invest in new technology and this could include eID and all its associated equipment but it is not for everyone,” he said.

“We are seeing a percentage use it but it is up to the individual producer to make the decision whether they see productivity gains from eID.”

He said the high cost – about $1.50 a tag for SA producers – was a significant consideration.

Beachport farmers Mark and Kate Wheal are excited about the benefits of eID, but question the livestock industry’s sole acceptance of low frequency cattle and sheep tags.

Mr Wheal says there are potentially tens of millions of dollars worth of savings to be made using ultra high frequency tags such as those used in transport logistics and casino chips.

“Why are we just accepting this old technology?,” he asked.

“The cost of a low frequency panel reader is $3000 or more and a stick reader about $2500 while a lot of hardware for high frequency is only about $500. 

“And the tag savings could be 70c a sheep or $2.20 for cattle while not relying on government subsidies to make it cost-effective.”

Mr Wheal says the increased capability of high frequency tags could also speed up the reading of individuals in a mob to about 300/second, and offer a wider read range up to five metres. This could revolutionise saleyard and on-farm reading and traceability.

A few weeks ago the Wheals received nearly 200 UHF tags from German company Pure Spekt.

They will trial the 65c tags in some of their free-range Berkshire pigs, cattle and sheep to test their retention rates and then hope to be able to find compatible software and hardware.

“I’m not saying that UHF is the complete answer but we need to look at all the options. As farmers we must continue to innovate,” Mr Wheal said.

WITHIN-flock variation of key traits can be massive, with the fleece value of Merino ewes varying by more than $35 and a more than $200 difference in lamb income, according to recent case studies.

But Clare-based AgriPartner Consulting principal consultant Hamish Dickson says less is known about the cost benefits of identifying top or poor performers to make breeding decisions across a five-year period, influencing reproductive performance or lamb productivity.

He is hoping to answer that.

AgriPartner Consulting has just received funding from Meat & Livestock Australia for a project modelling the long-term benefits  of implementing eID in Merino and crossbred/composite commercial flocks.

It will compare the profitability of different management strategies from pregnancy scanning to full implementation using eID to match maternal pedigrees and using the data to make flock decisions.

“Some of the gains come down to genetic heritability but within-flock variation is also a major area that can be utilised,” he said.

The outputs will be available in the second half of the year. Mr Dickson says adoption of sheep eID among commercial producers is increasing, especially with Merino breeders using it to track fleece data in their hogget selection decisions.

He says the key to success with eID  is sheep producers knowing what they want to achieve first, such as a target gross margin per hectare or target reproductive rates.

“People can get distracted about why they put eID into their sheep systems and get a lot of data but not use it,” he said. 

“They need to know where they want to take their sheep enterprises – eID should be the last decision point.”