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Australian Sheep Farmers Explore RFID's Benefits

Six sites in the state of Victoria are working with the Department of Primary Industries to demonstrate the economic benefits of using RFID tags to identify individual animals.
By Dave Friedlos
Jul 18, 2008The state government of Victoria, Australia, is rolling out radio frequency identification technology across six farms to investigate the benefits of tagging sheep. Victoria's Department of Primary Industries (DPI) was previously instrumental in the rollout of RFID in the cattle industry, launching a trial in 1999 to track cattle through saleyards, feedlots and abattoirs in order to improve traceability.

In 2003, the National Livestock Identification Scheme (NLIS) was launched nationally to track cattle—the largest application of RFID in Australia. Now the DPI wants to investigate the economic benefits of tagging sheep, and has established six demonstration sites at farms across rural Victoria, including Casterton, Ballarat, Benalla, Euroa and Swan Hill.

RFID has already improved the traceability of cattle, according to DPI animal standards manager Tony Britt, which he says is essential to meeting the demands of international markets. "The NLIS is a mature system, and about 25 million cattle movements are now recorded on the database annually," he says. "With the sheep industry, we wanted to start on a small scale and let commercial forces drive the adoption. So at a meeting in 2005, where an identification system based on visual, readable tags was introduced, it was agreed to allow the voluntary use of electronic tags instead if farmers saw a commercial benefit."

The DPI agreed to supply RFID tags to sheep farmers at a subsidized rate of AU$1.35 (US$1.31) per tag, with hardware and software also subsidized to encourage take-up of the technology. "The tags are available to any farmer that wants to introduce RFID, and we are getting about five orders a week," Britt says. "But we also wanted to provide independent, credible information on the technology to farmers. We will monitor the use of tags on the demonstration sites, and the information gained on the benefits of RFID will give farmers a good feel for what the technology can be do."

Australian agriculture consultancy Mike Stephens and Associates (MS&A) will evaluate the six sites over the next three years, then report on RFID's potential commercial benefits to farmers. "Victoria led the way in establishing RFID in the cattle industry, and now it wants to understand how it can work in the sheep industry," says MS&A consultant Jim Shovelton. "But we need to be able to demonstrate the economic benefits if we are to encourage farmers to adopt tagging technology."

Australian farmers have traditionally managed sheep as a single flock, Shovelton says, but there are hidden economic gains in using RFID tags to manage individual sheep. "There is a lot of variability in a sheep flock," he explains, "but managing individual sheep manually is just too costly and time-consuming. RFID tags can store information on sheep, such as weight gain and loss, to determine the healthiest animals, and if a sheep has lost weight, it can be drafted off to get more food."

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