If an exotic disease outbreak occurred in New Zealand’s sheep industry tomorrow it could take weeks, maybe months, to track movements to and from affected flocks as officials work through a paper-chain of animal status declarations (ASDs) supported by farmers’ diaries, stock agents’ records, saleyard catalogues, truckies’ dockets, meatworks’ receipts. Many time consuming and costly visits to farms and other premises would be required.

Meanwhile, depending on the nature of the disease and extent of the outbreak, stock movements would be restricted or at a standstill, with all the financial, logistical, emotional and, potentially, animal welfare problems such measures impose – just ask any farmer caught by Mycoplasma bovis.

Questions would be asked why a country where sheep production is so important to the economy appeared so ill-prepared, especially one that likes to think itself a leader in most aspects of agriculture.

One person who’s long been working to address the issue is Beef + Lamb New Zealand senior policy manager Chris Houston. He says the sector has already done a lot to improve preparedness but extending electronic ASD (eASD) capability to include farm-to-farm, and farm-to-saleyard (and vice versa) movements is a vital further improvement.

“It’s been our position for years that we need better information about the location of sheep farms and traceability of sheep movements, largely for biosecurity reasons but also for traceability in the event of any future residue contamination incident, and because there’s potential to deliver extra value through product provenance assurances in the market.”

Feedback on eASD use for farm to meatworks movements has been “really positive” since its pilot in 2017 so he’s hopeful OSPRI’s planned extension of eASD capability to include farm-to-farm movements next year will be similarly successful, and saleyard movements can soon follow. B+LNZ farmer consultation suggests there’s strong support for such moves, he adds.

“Covid-19 and M. bovis have done a lot to focus attention on how important traceability is.”

To ensure all movements can be checked remotely in the event of a disease outbreak, eASDs would probably have to become mandatory in due course, with provisions made to allow farms with limited electronic communications to participate. That might be by recording the movement on an app in a phone such that when the phone next receives signal it would automatically download, or possibly by enabling agents or transports to record the movement in such situations.

Similarly, the movement might be recorded through a meat company portal, or secure area of a stock agents’ website, in much the same way as dairy farmers use MINDA to record their stock movements for NAIT.

Houston says it would be logical if development of eASDs and integration of sheep into the NAIT database went hand-in-hand. However, he stresses sheep should not require ear tagging like cattle and deer: simply that a register of farms with sheep on them is needed for biosecurity purposes.

“For highly infectious diseases that affect sheep, most notably foot and mouth, identification of the individual animal is not required, as it is movements of groups of animals between farms that must be investigated.”

Another key factor in the design of a sheep traceability scheme is that they are less frequently traded than cattle, with about 80% of lambs going direct to slaughter. That means there’s little to be gained from making some form of property identifier – most likely a tag, electronic or visual – mandatory, and many farms use some form of identifier on ewes anyway.

Most sheep farms also already have NAIT accounts for cattle or deer, so few would need to create new accounts if a sheep register was added to the NAIT database. All that would be needed would be for the NAIT account to link to eASD records so movements on/off properties could be traced. That way there would be no need for farmers to update their sheep register whenever a movement is made: an annual declaration of stock numbers present would suffice.

NAIT’s head of traceability, Kevin Forward, says it would be preferable for tracing if traded sheep (as opposed to direct to slaughter) did have some form of farm-specific identification, but other than that he echoes Houston’s view that eASDs and a comprehensive register of sheep farms is all that’s needed.

“The problem with the current ASD system is it is paper, not electronic. That means in the event of an outbreak you have to go to each farm to look at the paper records.”

However, to make eASDs mandatory will require new legislation so how fast a system capable of rapidly tracking all sheep movements can be put in place will come down to industry and political will.

“The timeline will really depend on the Government of the day.”

In the meantime, he urges any farms not already using eASDs for movements to meatworks to start doing so, and to adopt eASDs for farm-to-farm and farm-to-saleyard movements as soon as they are enabled, which should be in 2021.

Federated Farmers’ Meat & Wool Industry Group chair, William Beetham, says bringing sheep into NAIT or a similar scheme is “a very fraught space” largely due to difficulties farmers have had with NAIT for cattle and deer, but doing so would be quite sensible, he believes.

“The key will be making sure there’s confidence in the system’s ease of use for participants. That’s really important. It won’t work if we don’t have buy-in from farmers.”

But implementing an electronic system for sheep traceability “should be a priority” nonetheless, he says, and it needs to be done with adequate support so all farms are capable of using the system, including the computer illiterate or those without adequate connectivity.

“The lead on this needs to be taken by Government and MPI, working with industry bodies.”

Sheep traceability overseas

In line with a European Union directive for member nations with more than 600,000 sheep, the United Kingdom implemented a tag and paper passport system for movement of sheep over nine months old in the mid-2000s following the 2001 foot and mouth disease outbreak.

About 10 million sheep, cattle and pigs were slaughtered during the outbreak and stock movements were halted, nationally, for months.

A sheep sale at Longtown, Cumbria, was found to have been pivotal in the outbreak’s national spread and undetected infections in flocks acted as a reservoir of disease, prolonging the outbreak.

England and Wales are now developing an electronic, all species “Livestock Information Service” designed to: enable quick and effective exotic disease response; improve productivity, animal health and welfare; and provide a competitive trade advantage.

In Australia, since January 2009, all sheep leaving a property must have a National Livestock Identification Scheme approved tag, and since July 2010, movements must be recorded on the NLIS database.

States have the option of implementing individual animal identification. To date only Victoria has taken this approach with sheep, making individual EID or visual tags mandatory from January 2017.

Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s Chris Houston (see main story) says with the exception of the United States, New Zealand is now one of the only countries in the developed world that doesn’t require livestock farms to register on a national database for biosecurity purposes. This is not a problem for cattle and deer farms, which are in NAIT, but it could be for other species including sheep and pigs.

“The situation is particularly challenging for biosecurity responders seeking to identify and visit lifestyle blocks and para-commercial farms that are under-represented in existing databases here.”