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  5. What are the animal welfare benefits of an electronic identification (NLIS) tag for farm animals?

What are the animal welfare benefits of an electronic identification (NLIS) tag for farm animals?

An electronic identification tag enables farm animals to be tracked from their property of birth through to slaughter. The National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) tag is placed in the animal’s ear and stays with the animal on farm, during transport, at saleyards and at the abattoir. The use of the NLIS tag is compulsory for cattle (as soon as they are transported off farm) but not yet for sheep.

The animal welfare benefits of an electronic ID tag include:

  • Rapid identification (traceability along the supply chain) of animals that may be at risk of disease in the incidence of a (notifiable) disease outbreak  allowing rapid treatment or euthanasia as required thereby reducing suffering associated with the disease.
  • Prevention of further spread of disease by preventing the movement of animals identified as ‘at risk’ thereby reducing suffering associated with the disease.
  • Individual electronic identification when used in combination with scanning and record keeping will allow better on-farm monitoring and management of individual animals.
  • At saleyards and abattoirs, it will allow rapid identification of poor welfare or cruelty cases allowing trace back to the property of origin and appropriate action to be taken.
  • At abattoirs, it will allow an individual animal to be traced back to the producer and the ability to provide the producer with information regarding that particular animal, e.g. carcass bruising, presence of grass seeds, disease, etc., which could lead to better handling or animal management on farm particularly if the abattoir attaches commercial drivers to these characteristics.
  • Electronic, real-time welfare measurement and managing the data that this generates appears to be a priority research area for several livestock industries (e.g. Sheep CRC).
  • With regard to live exports, the ability to trace individual animals through the supply chain offers the needed assurance as to their fate.

While the NLIS tag is compulsory for cattle, this is not the case for sheep where a plastic Property Identification Code (PIC) tag provides the only means for identification. Why doesn’t a plastic PIC tag provide the same benefits as the NLIS tag:

  • Sheep could have more than one plastic PIC ear tag (e.g. a breeder tag if bred on the property and one or more post-breeder tags if not bred on that property). If a sheep has more than two ear tags, it is impossible to tell which tag is the most recent.
  • The plastic PIC tag system does not work without an National Vendor Declaration (NVD) which accompanies sheep when they are transported. Use of the PIC tag relies on the NVD being completed correctly (i.e. it should list the PIC of each sheep in the consignment of sheep being transported/sold) and the NVD has been shown to be often inaccurate or incomplete (human error).
  • Without a correctly completed NVD, it is impossible to know the exact movements of an individual sheep, e.g. date of transport, which saleyard, other animals it may have been in contact with, etc.

In August 2016, the Victorian government announced it would require all sheep to carry electronic identification ear tags from January 2017 if they are being sent to a saleyard, abattoir or other property. This is the first state/territory in Australia to do so.

The Victorian government believes the current mob-based visual tag system for sheep does not meet National Traceability Performance Standards, and that enhancements to the current system are not practical or cost effective for Victoria. The change to electronic ID was recommended by the Victorian Auditor General’s Office review of Livestock Biosecurity.

See https://agriculture.vic.gov.au/livestock-and-animals/national-livestock-identification-system/nlis-sheep-and-goats for more info.

The National Traceability Performance Standards that a mob-based visual tag can’t meet are:

1.1 – Within 24 hours of the relevant Chief Veterinary Officer being notified, it must be possible to determine the location(s) where a specified animal was resident during the previous 30 days.

1.2 – Within 24 hours it must be also possible to determine the location(s) where all susceptible animals that resided concurrently and/or subsequently on any of the properties on which a specified animal has resided in the past 30 days.

In short, the electronic ID (EID or NLIS) tag that has the PIC visually readable, if applied from birth, stays with the animal for life, allows on-farm monitoring and management of individual animals, allows rapid traceability, and fits well with a future-focussed livestock industry.

In September 2022, state and territory agriculture Ministers agreed to work with the sheep and goat sectors towards the implementation of mandatory national individual electronic identification. The RSPCA strongly encourages the sheep and goat industries to rapidly adopt electronic identification technology.

Updated on July 21, 2023
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