Electronic identification is mandatory in sheep flocks, widely adopted in dairying, but less so on beef units. Howard Walsh reports.
A south Derbyshire beef finishing business could not be running the scale of operation it is without the combination of an efficient handling system and electronic identification (EID).
Operating a comparatively short-keep system using big, 20-24 month ‘stores’ – many of them bought out of the primestock ring – the Hallifields needed to get some precision and control to ensure cattle are gaining sufficient weight.
They need to ensure stock are not kept a day longer than they need to be in order to leave a reasonable margin and they comply with supermarket and farm assurance standstills.
However, the EID system boasts a whole host of additional useful data available at the press of a button to make it a complete management, recording and throughput control system.
Bank House Farm, Repton, can accommodate about 1,000 plus head at any one time and annual turnover of cattle, when beef prospects are good, is 6,000-8,000.
The task of regular ‘manual’ weighing, data recording and movement control on such a volume of cattle would be prohibitive.
The whole complex of yards and a state-of-the-art handling system is comparatively new (featured in FG, July, 2011).
The acclaimed handling system and electronic data recording installation are the result of the Hallifields’ own design and set of requirements. But it took some nine years to achieve the performance and reliability required.
Andrew Hallifield says: “We knew what we wanted, but finding the right components, suppliers and essential technical backup was a challenge. We had invaluable input from Allflex and the IT system supplier.
“Every part of the system has to ‘talk to’ each other – including the office computer and database – and, as I know next to nothing about IT, I need support on the other end of the phone and a remote-fix capability.
“We now have all we need and what these people can do is fantastic.”
Cattle are arriving – and moving off – the farm most days of the week.
The first step, when passports have been scanned, is to run the animals through the handling system, making sure UK tags match passports, and then assigning a low frequency electronic button tag to each beast so it is ‘on the system’.
Differently coloured discs on the male part of the tag, which is applied from the inside of the ear, relate to the week of purchase. This means anyone on the farm when viewing cattle head on, can instantly see how long they have been on-farm.
Just before animals leave the farm for slaughter, electronic tags are removed from the ear and are then available for re-use and re-programming.
Operating the ‘Hallifield-design’ crush and adjacent screen and keyboard is a one-man job, and to make it even easier, the desktop screen is duplicated on a 28-inch display monitor over the crush exit.
Information programmed in at the start, over and above the normal individual animal data, includes date on-farm, source (market), buyer, weight and price.
Subsequent information relating to any injections, dosing and withdrawal dates is added and those withdrawal dates are flagged up each time it is handled until it is clear to sell.
With regular weighing, the system calculates ongoing daily liveweight gain figures and 2-2.4kg is often achievable. It can also generate graphs to show clearly how an animal has settled in and begun to gain weight after maybe losing for the first few days.
Mr Hallifield says: “Importantly, it highlights those which are not performing and costing me money, and we then look at where they came from and who bought them – and patterns can emerge.
“It can save me considerable amounts of money over a year in not feeding cattle which need to go.”
They are fed a complete diet ad-lib, consisting of various ingredients including straw, barley, bread waste, grains, potato and chip processing ‘waste’, pot-ale syrup and whey permeate.
The design of the covered handling system and adjacent pens enables cattle to be readily batched for different destinations using hydraulic drafting doors operated from banks of conveniently mounted and triplicated control levers.
As individual animals are selected and drafted, they are automatically added to a specific management list compiled by the system which is then transferred to the farm office. Passports can then be drawn from the filing system.
Mr Hallifield says: “The free-flowing system enables the handling of large numbers of cattle as frequently as needed, with minimal stress on man and beast. This has removed many a family argument and made a tough job pleasurable.”
MARTIN Tomkins, of Border Software, which supports the system, says it is vital anyone employing this sort of IT has the infrastructure to make best use of it.
He says: “The hardware and software typically cost from £3,000 at the lower end to maybe £5,000 at the top end. Therefore, operating on the Hallifields’ scale, the cost of the equipment is not such a big deal.
“However, on its own, EID is not a solution for a farm. It is the way in which it is incorporated and what it is doing for you. For example, there is little point in having even just a simple weighing system if you have not got the facilities to weigh animals regularly and easily.
“What is ideal in the Hallifields’ situation is the system is suited to being under cover, because rainfall and sunlight are the main problems – particularly the latter. Sunlight-readable screens are comparatively expensive and an outdoor, waterproof, lockable cabinet for the computer can add £500 to £1,000.
“Farmers thinking of using EID need to look at what is available and working reliably on farms and elsewhere and ensure they invest in the infrastructure to make it all work and get the best out of it.”