James Macfarlane, ASHEEP Member
Electronic identification (eID) in sheep is becoming more widely used in Western Australia. Whilst this is the case, there are many who have not yet adopted the technology, and more still who don’t understand how it works and/or its value – especially in a commercial enterprise. What follows is a progress report of ongoing, independent evaluations of some of the more popular ‘wrap-around’ style electronic ear tags available in Western Australia.
Since as early as the 1960’s, Australian livestock producers have been tracing their animals. Traceability of livestock in Australia began in earnest in the 1970’s, but it’s only since the launch of the National Livestock Identification Scheme (NLIS) for sheep in 2006 that the practice has gained serious momentum. The NLIS mandated that sheep were to be tagged using coloured plastic tags with a unique identification number and placement of the tag in either left or right ear (which signifies the sex of the animal), allowing visual identification.
Electronic ear tags were first introduced to Australia in 1999, in cattle. These tags were then issued for voluntary use in the sheep industry in 2007. From the 1st of January 2017 however, all sheep and goats born in the state of Victoria were mandated to have eID tags.
Victoria is still the only state where eID tags in sheep are a mandatory requirement. The mandate was primarily introduced as a way of improving biosecurity in the state. It is said that our coloured tags brings traceability of the source of a disease outbreak down from two weeks to two days. With all producers using eID tags however, this could be reduced again, from two days to two hours. What a difference that could have made for the devastating Foot and Mouth outbreak in the UK in 2001, where >6million sheep and cattle had to be destroyed.
Electronic tags use radio frequency identification (RFID), with each tag emitting a unique 16-digit number, which receiver units can detect. Once identified, the producer is able to record individual traits, treatments, results and more, building a lifetime of data for each sheep. This information provides an opportunity to manage a flock more accurately and efficiently, by using objective records for culling etc. Subjective examination/classing of sheep will always be required – a somewhat dying art – but used in conjunction with objective data, producers have a far more robust approach towards strategic decision-making. You don’t know what you don’t know, but eID will help you know.
An eID tag itself doesn’t improve production or profit; it provides an alternative management method, driven by data, that can lead to superior production and profitability. The number one barrier to adoption is cost. Clients will often ask why they should spend more on an electronic tag, when plastic tags work very well, and are so much cheaper – about five times cheaper in fact. It’s a complicated analysis, but essentially comes down to the ability to cull and/or breed from individual animals – shifting the bell curve by using objective data.
It’s become widely accepted that the return on investment (ROI) in eID tags (and associated equipment) is ~3:1 i.e. you stand to receive $3 back for every $1 invested. There have been several studies conducted over the past few years, the lowest returning $1.87, the highest being $10.60, and the most recent (published by MLA earlier this year) being $4.12, for every $1 invested. Anything more than 1:1 should be worth your consideration. However, please note that the ROI is scalable, with returns becoming more favourable, the larger the number of sheep in a flock.
The Victorian government provides a subsidy, bringing the price of eID tags in line with the cost of plastic tags. This subsidy isn’t permanent though – it was introduced because of the mandate. Will we receive a similar subsidy in WA? I doubt it. However, on a week-long study tour to Victoria, with other industry peers and producers (courtesy of DPIRD), the common theme from VIC farmers was ‘I wish we’d done it sooner’; ‘If only we’d realised the benefits before’ etc. It is very important to note however, that you will only ever see a positive return if you use the data you capture.
If we assume that you have understood the benefits of introducing eID technology to your farm business, and you’re now looking at hardware and software options, one of the first questions you’ll want to answer is what type of tag (and applicator) to go for, and why. I’ve been trialing some of the more popular brands of eID tags available in WA, including: the Allflex RapID tag, the Leader Multitronic tag, the Zee Tags TagFaster tag, and the Shearwell eID SET tag. All of these tags are NLIS compliant and have been used as an alternative to a standard plastic tag. Note that all of these tags are ‘wrap around’ style tags. Round ‘button’ tags are also available.
Allflex RapID tag (and RapID Tagger)
The RapID tag is the first eID tag I ever used. It’s a very popular choice, with a solid reputation. It measures 76.5mm long, by 14mm wide. This makes it one of the larger tags available. The eID chip is uniquely located within the pin, hence why the pin is so large when compared to the others. It measures 23mm long, by 6mm wide, is straight, strong and has a sharp tip. It is free to rotate/swivel, meaning the tag can move in the ear without the pin spinning – to help reduce infection and aid healing. Allflex claim to use the highest quality RFID transponder, to maximise read distance. The tags are available in strips of 20, with a minimum order of 60 tags.
The applicator is a powder-coated metal construction. It’s medium weight and solidly built. It can slip a little in the hand though. It has a strong spring, that returns to position reliably. It includes a button by the thumb that allows the user to lock it shut for neater storage. It only works with the RapID tag – not its plastic counterpart.
Leader Multitronic (and 3 in 1 multi tag applicator)
Leader Multitronic tags have the boldest and brightest colour range of all. They measure 83mm long, by 13.5mm wide, making them another of the larger tags available. The eID chip is stored in a raised section in the middle of the underside of the tag. The pin measures 17mm long, by 4mm wide in the centre. The pin has somewhat of a conical shape – the same design as the Shearwell tag on trial here. It is fixed in position, made of plastic, and has a sharp tip. The tags come joined in strips of 10.
The applicator is the only stainless steel one being tested here. It is heavy weight (similar to ear-notching pliers) and built very well – the sort to last forever if you look after it. I’m not the only one to have experienced tags getting caught in it though – not releasing immediately – which can cause problems. It works with three different [Leader] tag types though, which is potentially handy.
Zee Tag TagFaster tag (and TagFaster plier applicator)
Zee Tags are owned by parent company Datamars – also responsible for TruTest and Prattley. This combination of tag and applicator includes the most expensive tag, but cheapest applicator. The TagFaster tag is the smallest tag being tested here, measuring 77mm long by 8mm wide. Similar in concept to the Shearwell SET tag, the eID chip located in the bulbous underside of the tag. The pin measures 15mm long, by 3mm wide. It is straight and has a sharp tip (the sharpest I’d say). It is however the weakest of the pins, bending on application on multiple occasions. It isn’t fixed but doesn’t swivel freely enough for the swivel to be of any benefit. The tip of the pin is housed within a cylindrical termination, with a guarded but open end, designed for improved air flow to help reduce the chance of infection at the site of the wound. This is the only tag on test with a ‘hinge’. This improves flexibility, but only to 90degress, at which point it actually becomes stiffer than the others. It does however improve the strength of the tag at the flex point. The tags are supplied in multiples of 20.
The applicator is the smallest and lightest of the four, made from a hardened plastic material. It is so small that anyone with particularly large hands might find it awkward to use. The spring has become stiff over the past year, unlike the others which remain supple. This applicator works with both the plastic and eID TagFaster tags.
Shearwell eID SET Tag (and SET Tag applicator)
Shearwell’s eID SET tag is widely used and has a loyal fan base (particularly in the Eastern states), including shearers [when speaking with shearers, the large majority said that this tag was their preferred option, as they’re less easy to cut out]. These tags are made in Bendigo, Victoria. They measure 80mm long, by 9mm wide. The eID chip is housed in the swollen underside of the tag, with the tip of the pin sitting within an extension of the housing, as if covered by a sheath – similar to the Zee Tag. Hiding the tip like this means there’s less chance of snagging skin or clothing and may improve comfort for the sheep too. The fixed pin measures 17mm long, by 4mm wide at the centre. It is the same shape and size as the Leader pin. I’ve heard that the shape was designed to aid superior retention. Tags come in strips of 10.
The applicator is made of a durable, hardened plastic material. It has great ergonomics, sitting well in the hand, with cut-outs for the fingers to sit in, making it easier to hold on to than some of the others. It’s light weight and has a strong spring. It works with both SET Tag types – the plastic and eID versions, which saves time switching between applicators if you’re using plastic tags in wethers and eID tags in ewes for example.
There’s no such thing as a perfect tag. All tags have advantages and disadvantages. So, what makes a tag a good tag? I’ve used multiple factors to help determine this, including: cost, colour, print space, readability, retention, ease of application, and customer service. I’ve scored each tag on all these factors, and applicators on price, feel, ease of use, and functionality – 1-4, with 4points awarded to top spot, 1point to last position – then ranked them, providing an indicative preference result at the end.
Starting with cost – the single most important factor, according to recent polling – the Shearwell SET tag is (statistically speaking) significantly cheaper than all the others in this group. There is no significant difference between the other three tag prices. The recommended retail prices (inc. GST) are as follows:
Shearwell eID SET tag $1.55
Leader Multitronic $1.75
Allflex RapID $1.86
Zee Tag TagFaster $1.90
This gives a range of $0.35 – a gap large enough to be more than the typical price of a plastic tag.
I’ve only been using single tag applicators, as opposed to multi-tag applicators – something available for the Allflex RapID tags and TagFaster tags. The retail cost (inc. GST) of the featured single-shot applicators are as follows:
TagFaster hand pliers $12.00
Shearwell $13.20 (free with your first 200+ tags)
Leader 3 in 1 applicator $49.50
Allflex RapID Tagger $64.00
Colour is important if you’re using an eID tag as your only tag. Despite being able to identify individual animals with eID tags, it’s always useful to be able to identify age at a glance. Plastic tag colour has always been a complaint, with many of the colours being wishy-washy and hard to tell apart from afar. The story is no different with eID tags.
There is however a clear winner in this category – Leader, with their newly introduced (2020), heat treated, UV-stabilised colour range. The colours are truly vibrant and easy to tell apart, unlike the others, which all continue to use the same pastel-like colours (for the most part). Ironically though, purples seem to be good across the board this year. As important as colour can be, they can of course all end up looking the same if covered in dirt!
Print space varies dramatically between the tags. This is important if you want to be able to visually identify individual animals by management number and/or for more clearly displaying your brand and PIC number, potentially farm name too; not to mention the NLIS logo of course, OJD stamp, and manufacturer’s code/tag number as well. Having multiple print options allows producers more flexibility around what they wish to have most visible. Of these tags, Allflex and Shearwell offer the best options (in my opinion). The space available often determines text size. It’s more so the layout of the print design that offers most opportunity though. The largest text available comes from Allflex, allowing lettering up to 9mm tall. The narrowest tag – TagFaster – inherently means the smallest text, when utilising maximum print options. The Multitronic’s unfortunate top-mounted (on the underside) bump-out to contain the eID chip means that print space on the underside becomes very limited. A PIC number or manufacturer’s code/tag number can be printed there, but that leaves the rest competing for space on the top side. This category goes to Shearwell, for their clever use of every square millimeter of available space. Your brand can be squeezed into the round space sitting above the pin for example; the NLIS logo and V stamp sit on the bend. It’s all very neat, and with multiple layouts available – including custom options – this one hits a home run, even if the maximum text size isn’t as big as some others.
I have noticed no discernable difference in the reliability of readability, with all tags reading as easily as each other. There’s not been a noticeable difference in distance to read either.
Retention, in part, also refers to reliability. In quizzing shearers about their preferred tag, they almost exclusively said the Shearwell, as they’re less easy to cut out. Producer polls rank Shearwell highly too, for retention. Of all the tags I’ve trialed on farm, the only ones I’ve personally lost are Allflex RapID tags. I’ve not lost many, but the few I have lost have been through infection and/or getting caught in fencing and being ripped out. Some say that the larger wound, caused by the larger pin, introduces more chance of infection occurring. However, others will tell you that the more the wound site can breathe, the better the chances of healing well, and in that respect, the RapID tag has more air space around it than the others. Further, due to the strength of the RapID tag pin, if a shearer were to cut through the tag, the tag is likely to remain in the ear, albeit with two parts swinging around. Leader have a ‘100% retention’ guarantee, so you will get your tags replaced if they do get lost. A renowned Victorian producer once told me that the shape of the Shearwell pin (same as the Leader) was designed with retention in mind. The TagFaster tag seems to have a good rate of retention (despite the tightest fit and therefore the least amount of airflow around the wound site) …if you can get it into an ear.
Ease of application of a tag implies how easily it pierces the ear, and how quickly you can re-load and move to the next. The TagFaster tag, although possibly the one with the sharpest pin, is comparatively difficult (sometimes impossible) to punch through any ear other than a lamb. In bigger, thicker ears, I found that the pin would bend/fold over and sometimes not even scratch the surface! So, if all you’re doing is using them for is marking lambs, they’ll be fine. In fact, in lambs, they piece the ear with ease. Bigger than that though and you might struggle. The tags clamp together and pop out of the applicator without issue. The applicator is very small and light, which I don’t think will appeal to everyone. It’s easy to know which way to place the tag in the applicator as the male part of the tag goes into the blue part and the female into the pink part – so that’s good. The spring has become stiff though, so it’s become less easy to use over the course of a year. Having said that, it’s almost a disposable item at only $12. The Allflex tags are easy to punch through any size ear, although take a little more effort on bigger ears due to the larger pin size. The applicator is satisfactory, but nothing more. It’s a shame that you need to switch between two applicators if applying plastic and eID tags at the same time. The biggest issued I’ve found with the applicator though (mirrored by numerous producers I’ve spoken with) is the misalignment of tags, with the pin not aligning correctly to the hole underneath, causing ‘misfires’, for want of a better word. This may not be as much of an issue with their multi tag applicator. As with the retention category, I’m awarding a joint top spot here to Leader and Shearwell.
They pierce any size ear very well – again due to the design of the pin maybe? Both applicators accept multiple tag types. The Leader applicator is a very high-end product, finished in solid stainless steel, although the extra weight (700g) may put some off. It has a spring-loaded ‘pusher’ button inside it, to ensure perfect positioning of the tags (in the applicator) every time. The Shearwell applicator is one of the cheapest available, although extremely well designed and built. It’s easy to determine top and bottom – by colour. The tags have a satisfying clunk as they’re loaded, and they’re held tightly in place, and release faultlessly.
Customer service can be as important as the product itself. I’ve had experience dealing with all these manufacturers, and all have been very helpful. Website usability is a key element of customer service, and Shearwell is a clear winner here. It is a very easy-to-navigate site, with intuitive ordering system…the others not so. Shearwell and Allflex don’t have an on-the-ground presence in WA, which counts against them, even though their phone and email support is very good. Leader’s newly appointed state manager, as well as the Datamars rep have both been a pleasure to deal with – in person.
Having scored all tags and applicators across 10 different categories, they ranked in the following order:
1st place: Shearwell eID SET tags
(a close) 2nd place: Leader Multitronic tags
3rd place: Allflex RapID tags
4th place: Zee Tags TagFaster tags
Trials and research are ongoing. More tags will be tested in due course.
James Macfarlane is a member of ASHEEP. He is based in Kojonup, where we he and his family have a farm, running a mix of Merinos and dual/multi-purpose Merinos, and he also consults under the brand AgricUltra Farm Advisors. James advised he was not incentivised by any brand, and his observations are meant as an independent guide for what may suit you. Contact James: 0447 999 902