Traceability was once again the hot topic at the summer annual meeting of the Livestock Markets Association of Canada in Waterloo, Ont.
The markets still have some concerns about Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) new three-year, $20-million Livestock Auction Traceability Initiative (LATI) which covers 80 per cent of the cost of installation and scanning equipment of up to $100,000 for markets, assembly yards, feedlots, backgrounders, fairs/exhibitions, private community pastures and other commingling sites.
“Without a clear traceability plan that outlines the requirements and standards that our members are expected to meet, it’s very difficult to respond to a resource (funding) initiative,” explains LMAC president Jim Abel of Stettler, Alta.
The markets had sought a program that covered 90 per cent of their infrastructure costs since the didn’t believe that they would see any direct dollar benefit from reading RFID numbers.
However, they can and have been charged for selling animals without an approved electronic ear tag even though the regulations stipulate that it is the responsibility of the seller to ensure that animals are properly tagged or arrange for the market to have them tagged upon arrival.
Adding to the confusion, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is looking at withdrawing official tagging station status for auction markets, which begs the question of whether markets will be able to accept untagged cattle in future. If not, it would surely push more cattle into direct sales routes.
Abel says CFIA officials have assured the LMAC that even if the markets are delisted they will still be able to tag animals that arrive without tags.
LMAC board member Rick Wright says one of the challenges all along has been getting firm answers in writing rather than verbal promises from government. Part of it is related to staff changes within the department. “With the current staff, I feel we’ve made great strides over the past year with AAFC and CFIA,” Wright says. “Much of it is due to a real effort on their part to learn about and understand the intricacies of our business.”
Market neutrality remains a stumbling block. If markets must record cattle movement, LMAC says the same requirement should apply to private treaty and electronic sales. “We love competition, but we need to look out for our industry and make sure it’s a level playing field, especially if it ends up that markets have to charge the cost back to sellers and buyers,” says Abel.
Donna Henuset, the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency traceability project manager, updated the LMAC members on the second phase of the national traceability study. In the first phase 500,000 cattle were scanned at 10 auction markets with 93 per cent accuracy. Phase 2 focused on documenting the benefits of traceability to vendors, in this case the auction marts. Several buying stations were added to the test and different configurations of readers were used to scan some 390,000 head. Costs were higher and performance lower. Global read rates dropped to 89 per cent across all the sites, one recorded a 14 per cent drop in accuracy from the first trial.
An Alberta study tested equipment and software from one vendor under different configurations in six markets of varying size across the province. Overall 248,000 head were scanned with a 91.42 per cent read rate with no intervention. When the cattle with no tags, bar code tags, dual or dirty tags were excluded the average read rate rose to 96.95 per cent. Almost 83 per cent of the groups had a 100 per cent read rate.
No single configuration of equipment or business model came to the forefront as being the best way for all markets. Though the results weren’t exactly what they were hoping for,
Abel and Wright agree the research was worthwhile because it identified what worked, what didn’t and identified what needed to be improved before movement reporting of livestock can be implemented.
“We now realize that the costs will be much higher than anticipated,” says Abel. The research also confirmed that traceability offers no tangible benefits to the markets. As a result the LMAC members voted unanimously to request the government cover 100 per cent of their costs to install, maintain and operate tag-reading systems at auction markets.
On a more positive note, Abel says the LMAC was pleased that the government representatives at the meeting expressed a willingness to work with markets to find solutions to the issues raised by the markets.
One alternative, says Wright, might be a lower-cost, less intrusive alternative “Plan B” that LMAC has been developing. It involves reading RFID numbers only on animals departing markets for locations that don’t have equipment to scan them upon arrival. As it stands, the majority of animals that move through markets go to feedlots or packing plants that are already reading and reporting RFID numbers.
This year’s host market operator, Larry Witzel of the Ontario Livestock Exchange concluded, “We need to take small steps and keep moving forward. A big step and a key point is that we were grateful to hear government say read rates won’t be regulated because the technology is not at the point it needs to be.
“Government recognized this is not an easy task. Timelines are set as goals, but sometimes they need to be changed. This is something that will take time to do properly so it works right. If we don’t, and policy comes in around it, it will affect our industry for generations to come. That’s why it’s so important to be very conscientious as we move forward and not rush into it.”