WA livestock industry representatives have urged the State government to "hasten slowly" before rolling out mandatory electronic identification (eID) for sheep.
Their comments come after it was announced that Integrity Systems Company (ISC), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) had started a three-year project to develop a new and improved traceability platform to replace the 23-year-old National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) database - originally built for cattle.
While the announcement was welcomed, the new database is not expected to be completed until mid-2026.
Representatives have said the current NLIS database handled cattle transactions easily, however given there were almost three times more sheep in Australia, the process was "not as simplistic".
They also said now was "the worst possible time" to impose an added cost on sheep enterprises, particularly when many would already be operating at a loss.
While compulsory tagging of livestock is expected to improve traceability in the event of a disease outbreak, it has attracted a mixed response from WA's peak farming bodies and farmers.
Those in favour of eID said traceability systems strengthen Australia's supply chain and underpin "almost everything" in the red meat sector, including our ability to export and provide food security.
Others have said improving the National Vendor Declaration (NDV) and NLIS database was of higher priority.
They believe the mob-based system with pink transaction tags is "superior" to that used in other parts of Australia.
Hasten slowly, start again
Cattle National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) Advisory Committee WA chairman Mike Norton said one of the biggest problems was the current 23-year-old NLIS database - originally built for cattle.
Mr Norton said while the database was the heart of the eID program, it could not handle having millions of sheep "parachuted" on top of it.
After this was realised, he said a project was completed by The Growth Drivers (TGD) in partnership with Integrity Systems Company (ISC), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), and its stakeholders.
A project report obtained by Farm Weekly, was released in June 2021, however according to industry sources it was only recently made public.
The report outlined two phases, the first of which aimed to understand the current context of tracking, tracing and technology adoption in the sheep industry.
During this process the unique complexity of industry, including variances in production process and differences in tracking and tracing systems utilised at the time, were identified.
Key drivers included the need for improved supply chain visibility, accurate data, and technology solutions and approaches that made it easier to transform data into business impact through interoperability and commercial partnerships.
Phase two involved a detailed desktop investigation and stakeholder engagement to establish a set of principles and an assessment framework for identifying suitable solutions for the industry and creating recommendations for their implementation.
A step-by-step approach was taken, which resulted in utilising a 'push-pull' innovation approach to design three roadmaps for progression into phases three, to test solutions, and four, the final report, recommendations and post-project roadmap.
Mr Norton said ISC were aware of the shortcomings and sought Federal government funding to upgrade the database earlier this year.
As such the company was awarded a $22.5 million government grant in September, to build a new national livestock traceability platform to replace the NLIS database which will be complete by mid-2026, at the same time WA's mandatory eID rollout would come into full operation.
It is set to align functionality with the eNVD system for livestock consignments to streamline the current process for producers, and will also be able to handle the significant amounts of data that will flow through with the national implementation of sheep and goat eID.
Keeping this in mind, concerns have been raised about the mandatory eID rollout, including the fact sheep and goats, born after January 1, 2025, would still require an eID tag before leaving the property or before they reach six months of age.
Mr Norton said nothing should happen, in any significant way, until the database had been rebuilt.
He also said given the current state of WA's sheep industry, with some saleyard sheep selling for less than the price of a $2 tag, now was the "worst possible time" to roll-out a mandatory eID program.
"There are a lot of very concerned both sheep and beef producers out there at present, they don't need any additional pain inflicted on them at present," Mr Norton said.
"It was alright when sheep prices were where they were, but now they are at such a low with no indication as to when they are going to turn around.
"There is so much uncertainty at the moment (particularly around live export), and eID is another spoke in the wheel that is going to collapse if we aren't careful."
Mr Norton said abattoirs and saleyards could install all the necessary infrastructure prior to 2026, however it might not work in line, or as effectively, with the final database.
He said there was no certainty around what system ISC would develop and "anything could happen" between now and then, particularly with both a State and Federal election.
"My message is - hasten slowly, sit down, go back to square one and start again," Mr Norton said.
"Everything revolves around the database, and sheep will not work the same as cattle - they are completely different."
Mr Norton said it was important the new system was simple and easy to follow for producers wanting to transact livestock.
He said the backup interface also had to be 'very user friendly' keeping in mind the average age of those who would be using it.
"Similarly to cattle, we need some really good people behind the scenes steering farmers through it and also sorting out mistakes in the system on a daily basis," Mr Norton said.
"If the mistakes are let go for weeks and months then the whole system will virtually collapse and turn into a dog's breakfast."
Drawing on his role and experience in rolling out electronic tags in cattle, Mr Norton said there needed to be some pathways into the new database's implementation.
He said the saleyards should be first priority, followed by abattoirs, which were a terminal site.
"Once sheep go into the abattoir they don't come out, except in a box and the first thing that is cut-off is the tag.
"Whereas, sheep come out of the saleyards in 10 different directions.
"The database should be built so all sheep that go directly to the saleyards, an agricultural show, clearing sale or ram sale have an NLIS tag - basically anything that leaves a property and comes back.
"Then any sheep that goes to a terminal site like an abattoir or live export depot, should work on a normal mob-based system."
Mr Norton said when a producer sent a mob, for example 200 lambs, to an abattoir for slaughter or port for live export, they could log that number of sheep into the database.
This number would then be wiped from the database once they had been killed or put onto ship.
"Then once the new system is working and all of these sites have the right infrastructure, they could probably go to NLIS tags and it would be a somewhat seamless process."
Mr Norton said to go cold turkey could be a total mess.
He also questioned whether or not the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) would be capable of installing the necessary infrastructure into saleyards and abattoirs by the July 1, 2025 roll-out date, with staffing shortages.
Mr Norton said there would be "real problems" within the department if they didn't have people with the expertise to roll the program out.
A DPIRD spokesperson said the State government's $32.6m budget commitment to bolster its biosecurity capacity included $22.2m for implementation of the eID system for sheep and goats.
The spokesperson said this funding included five full-time equivalent DPIRD positions to support the eID implementation program, which have been filled.
"The Sheep and Goat Advisory Group, comprised of producers and supply chain stakeholders, continues to provide advice to DPIRD on the delivery of the eID system," the spokesperson said.
"DPIRD remains committed to the implementation of the new eID system.
"The $32.6m budget commitment also includes $10.4m for emergency animal disease preparedness and an additional 14 FTEs."
Show the money
Pastoralists and Graziers Association WA livestock committee chairman Chris Patmore urged the State government to wait until the new NLIS database had been completed and the industry returned to profitability, before rolling out mandatory eID in sheep.
Mr Patmore said while the current NLIS database handled cattle transactions easily, the fact remained there were nearly three times more sheep than cattle in Australia.
"There seems to be a misunderstanding among people that because the sheep industry is smaller than the cattle industry in Australia it will be an easy transition," Mr Patmore said.
"However, the database, which already isn't very user friendly, will be dealing with a four-fold increase in the number of transactions.
"It needs to have the capacity to cope with that.
"Why are we rolling out eID prior to the database being completed?"
Mr Patmore added, "I am doubtful the introduction of a completely new sheep traceability system will be seamless and trouble free".
"I think it will be likely to cause more confusion in an industry already confronting market turmoil," he said.
"Farmers are already exiting the sheep industry and this can only make it worse.
"WA already has a really good traceability system."
Mr Patmore said the outcome of introducing eID given the current state of industry, should not be underestimated.
Separately, he said the WA government had not yet revealed details surrounding the $22.2m funding boost, announced in April to assist with the transition.
"We are running out of time with continual delays of funding packages by the State government," Mr Patmore said.
"The last thing we want is a roll-out that will be dysfunctional and turn into a dog's breakfast."
WA Agriculture and Food Minister Jackie Jarvis said the government had committed a total of $25.6m to supporting sheep and goat producers, and livestock supply chains to transition to a mandatory national eID system.
"A program to support abattoirs, saleyards and other downstream operators to adapt their operations to the new system is being devised and details will be provided in coming weeks," Ms Jarvis said.
In July, Integrity Systems Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of MLA started a three-year project to develop a new and improved traceability platform to replace the current NLIS database.
The project is being supported by a $22.5m funding grant, which was announced by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in September and forms part of the Federal government's 'Bolstering Australia's Biosecurity System' package.
The NLIS Database Uplift Project is currently in the second of six stages.
Stage two involves engaging with end users to ensure all requirements are included in the new platform design.
Integrity Systems Company chief executive officer Jo Quigley said the procurement process for stages three to six, involving the architecture, design and build of the new platform, had not yet commenced.
"The NLIS Database Uplift Project uses an open and transparent procurement process which includes the specific criteria that are required to be addressed in each stage," Ms Quigley said.
"Stage three will focus on software and architecture design to support the new NLIS.
"This will draw on the findings from the first two stages which involved stakeholder engagement on the current NLIS and the necessary inclusions for the future NLIS."
When asked how the new database would be different to that of cattle, Ms Quigley said the project would ensure Australia has a fit-for-purpose data capture, storage and distribution system which offers flexibility and scalability to track all future livestock movements, including sheep and goat electronic identification.
She said a key objective of the new NLIS platform is it would be intuitive and offer an easy-to-use interface to cater for diverse user groups.
"A detailed change management plan has been developed which includes when and how the features of the new system will be communicated to users."
WA Meat Industry Authority (WAMIA) acting chief executive officer I-Lyn Loo said she was confident Muchea Livestock Centre (MLC) would be ready ahead of the July 1, 2025 deadline for saleyards to install the necessary equipment.
She said WAMIA had proactively completed the procurement process for five three-way draft scanners to be installed in two phases, ahead of any potential announcement of grant funding details from DPIRD.
The contract has been awarded to Allflex.
"The decision to purchase three-way draft scanners was based on the current infrastructure layout of MLC and the learnings from a visit to Victorian saleyards by WAMIA's saleyard manager in November last year," Ms Loo said.
"The first phase will involve the installation of one draft scanner in MLC, aimed for completion in the first quarter of 2024.
"I am excited for this pilot project to showcase how electronic sheep and goat ID scanning will work in MLC."
Ms Loo said WAMIA employees were already familiar with eID systems in the cattleyard and she was confident they would be able to utilise their knowledge and skills to support the sheep and goat industry through this eID rollout in WA.
"The installation of the remaining four draft scanners will be before 1 July 2025," she said.
"To implement this project, we are working closely with the users of the MLC sheep yard through a sub-committee.
"This process ensures that the installation of the equipment is completed with their input and with minimal disruption to trade and store sales in MLC."
WAMIA estimates that the total cost of the equipment and required modifications to existing infrastructure will be between $800,000 and $850,000.
Mandatory eID roll-out dates
NLIS Database Uplift Project
Here's a look at the road ahead.
For more information visit www.agric.wa.gov.au/EID-sheep-and-goats.
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