Key Points:

After four-and-a-half years' work on an electronic animal identification and tracing system the go-live deadline is finally looming, but some farmers are not happy.

Movements between farms, sale yards and processors will be tracked using radio frequency tags on animals' ears, which can be scanned with hand-held equipment and recorded on a database.

A six-month National Animal Identification and Tracing (Nait) pilot project at farms and meat processors went well, says Ian Corney, independent chairman of the Nait Governance Group.

The current two-tag system uses a paper trail to track movements. "It's very time consuming, too many holes in it and if push comes to shove it would take far too long to nail the problem," Corney says.

The potential problem, or more precisely crisis, is a biosecurity outbreak, such as foot and mouth disease.

During the 2005 Waiheke Island foot and mouth hoax the nation held its breath. Agriculture is our biggest earner, meaning a greater risk to the overall economy in the event of a crisis.

"For an agricultural exporting nation, we are probably not in as good a place as we need to be where animal identification is concerned."

Pressure for traceability is growing internationally and many countries are more advanced than New Zealand, Corney says.

"I don't think we can afford to sit back and say it'll never happen. We can't afford to take our markets for granted and we can't afford to take our biosecurity for granted."

A discussion document released in June estimates a net present value from the new system of between $301 million and $524 million in the event of a disease outbreak.

By July 2011 requirements would be mandated by regulations. The Crown will pick up the capital expenditure costs, a rural property database, plus 35 per cent of ongoing operating costs, and industry will pay the rest. Operating expenditure from 2012 onwards is expected to be $7.3 million a year.

After 2011 farmers' tagging costs could be less than now, with perhaps only one required, Corney says.

However, indicative figures suggest there could be a cost of below $1 per animal at slaughter - which could be met by farmer levy.

The system would initially focus on cattle and deer but in future could include sheep, although Corney doubted that would be on an individual animal basis.

The Governance Group was waiting for final submissions on the discussion document and would undertake consultation until March, after which a system was expected to go live.

Meat processor Silver Fern Farms chief executive Keith Cooper says the system is a no-brainer.

"It can be used as a non-tariff trade barrier, customers will demand it, customers could use it as a reason not to buy us or value our product at less," Cooper says.

"If any one of those factors gets imposed on us by one of our trading partners tomorrow, for cattle it will take us two years to get a traceability system in place, for lambs, probably 12 to 18 months."

Meat & Wool New Zealand chairman Mike Petersen says every other major beef exporting country has an electronic identification scheme for cattle.

"One BSE cow in Canada cost the Canadian beef industry $7 billion," Petersen says. "That's because they did not have a traceability system in place and, importantly, they could not re-enter the markets because they didn't have one in place.

New Zealand's beef exports to Japan, Korea and Taiwan were worth $750 million a year.

"It's too late once you get a BSE outbreak to then start thinking about how you're going to put a system in."

But after four-and a-half years' work, Federated Farmers, which has been part of the Governance Group, is not happy.

President Don Nicolson says Feds surveyed between 9000 and 11,000 farmers and had so far received at least 300 to 400 responses.

The result was 80 per cent against Nait and 2 per cent in favour, with 18 per cent wanting more information, although some people accused the questions of being skewed.

Four years ago Federated Farmers was in favour of looking at a voluntary system rather than a Government-mandated system, Nicolson says.

Now the democratic process says they have to oppose Nait, he says.

"We've got a clear direction where we have to say our point of view ... but re-looking at what is currently available, re-looking at options that are being presented and getting a far more robust business case than we've had delivered so far will be a useful way forward."

Federated Farmers is concerned that under a national system the database and intellectual property could be owned by the Government and not farmers.

"In that discussion document it does talk about linking it to emissions profiling of farms ... and it does link it to land-use sustainability," Nicolson says. "So that is what has triggered our members into another state. We don't like having information that was not part of the discussion until that document was presented."

Federated Farmers supports robust biosecurity and identifying weaknesses in the current system but does not think the needs have been analysed properly.

"We know we had that scare in Waiheke that put us into a tailspin but my information is that it was the inability to track the owners of sheep rather than cattle or deer that was the problem," Nicolson says.

Nicolson questions whether the new system is an aspiration of marketing people or a genuine market need.

"I'm starting to doubt it," he says. "The biggest risk to New Zealand's biosecurity will be through ports and airports.

"We would hate to think we're adding massive costs in compliance inside the farm gate when all we had to do was beef up our border patrols."

Nicolson is not sure there will be any benefit inside the farm gate. Federated Farmers says the Nait group has miscalculated, with an on-farm net present value of $273 million not $507 million.

"This system will impose costs on everyone in the supply chain - sale yards, transport operators, show managers, processors, and pet show days," he says.

"They will all pass those costs on to farmers through additional charges, or reduced prices."

Nicolson says Federated Farmers is happy to facilitate more consultation directly with farmers.

"The farmers of New Zealand are saying let's spend a little more time understanding this concept."

If the Federated Farmers survey reflects the feeling of the wider agricultural community that is a major concern because farmer support is vital.

The next five months will be key for either taking on board concerns or convincing the doubters - probably both. The Waiheke hoax was a huge shock at the time but it's human nature that the sense of urgency wanes with time.

But complacency brings risks. Shocking events in Britain with its pyres of burning cattle and ominous plumes of smoke drifting across a devastated countryside couldn't really happen here, could it?

Short of shutting all ports, airports and stopping tourism, yes, it could.

All it takes is one mucky boot.

Prevention is better than cure, so strict border security is essential but if breached we have to be able to act fast to contain and eradicate any outbreak.

Insurance policies are always a cost we would rather not spend for a service we never want to use but they bring peace of mind today in case the worst happens tomorrow.

If farmers knock this system back and one day we need it, we'll all wonder why it seemed so contentious. The blame game will fly but it will be too late.

YOOF HOOF

DairyNZ is keeping up its campaign to meet a critical labour shortage in the dairy industry with phase two of the youth-focused Get Fresh campaign.

The campaign was launched in March aimed at 15-18-year-olds who are undecided about what to do when they leave school.

Phase one was aimed at attracting the next generation of workers to careers on the farm.

DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle says 22 per cent of farm employers were looking for staff at the end of last year and 13 per cent had a position vacant for six months.

"We need several thousand people every year, new people coming in," Mackle says.

DairyNZ strategy leader Mark Paine says phase two will promote the wide range of opportunities in the agribusiness sector supporting dairy farmers.

"We are talking to youth in their language, making it fun and using the mediums they are hooked into to get our message across," Paine says.

The campaign is mainly web-based and supported by texting, TV advertisements and an internet-based competition.

"These support industries, such as science, vet and consultancy, are critical to the future competitiveness of dairy farm businesses.

"They provide a wealth of career opportunities for young people," he says.

Just in case all this talk of work, jobs and careers starts to sound a bit heavy, bogus or brutal - depending on your decade - DairyNZ is sticking to its promise to talk to the young in their own words.

"The newly formed Get Fresh Rescue Squad is out in the workplace to rescue people from truly stink jobs and help them join others who have been rescued in the past and now enjoy a great career in the dairy industry," DairyNZ says.

Now that sounds far out, bad (as in good) and wicked (as in good, again).

A job on a dairy farm might be a bit stinky but it sure ain't stink.