Brands or eartags identify animals visually but can be tampered with or removed. The Agricultural Research Council (ARC) developed the infallible DNA-based LidCat system, used for more than a decade by commercial livestock farmers, and now adapted for resource-limited farmers. It offers the added benefits of paternity confirmation, genetic herd management and preventing stock theft.
The individual identification
of livestock can be traced back to the Code of Hammurabi in 1800 BC when animals were first marked for identification. Mainly high-value animals such as those belonging to royalty were initially marked, but the practice was expanded to all animals, for instance when diseases broke out. Strict animal identification laws were often imposed during ancient times and violators were severely punished by sometimes being branded or even executed.
Identification and traceability
Animal identification objectives have changed significantly in modern times. While the terms “identification” and “traceability” are now used concurrently, the main driving forces behind traceability are food safety, ownership confirmation, animal breeding and improvement, animal welfare, disease control and trade. Many countries now impose strict legislation on animal traceability, identification and animal product exports.
Certain countries require mandatory individual identification, while others such as Japan and the EU countries, demand all locally produced beef must be two-way traceable between farm of origin and retail outlet. A global drive to replace voluntary identification systems with mandatory identification systems, requiring an integrated transnational information infrastructure based on complete and accurate information, is envisaged for the future. In South Africa the high level of stock theft makes the individual identification of animals important. Resource-limited farmers are particularly vulnerable as their animals are often not marked due to a lack of resources or ignorance. Stock theft is often devastating for these farmers as each usually owns only a few animals.
Developing a system that works
The Animal Genetics Division (AGD) of the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) at Irene has developed a DNA-based identification system for most farm animals and several wild animals or game species. As each animal has a unique DNA profile, the technique’s reliability is beyond doubt. The Livestock Identification Catalogue (LidCat) project, originally developed as an anti-stock theft measure for commercial farmers and stud breeders, has been in operation for nearly 12 years and the demand from farmers to catalogue their animals has grown considerably.
The system is based on collecting a DNA sample from an animal, allocating a unique barcoded reference number and then storing (biobanking) the sample under controlled conditions in a laboratory. Adding an animal on the system is a simple process and the AGD at the ARC-API in Irene supplies all the required material.
Simple sampling steps
Sampling entails plucking a few hairs with their roots from the tail switch, depositing them in duplicate in a sealable plastic bag, and filling in the relevant information on a card supplied in the bag about the animal and owner. A unique barcoded reference number, similar to a human ID number, accompanies each card, while a third replica of the number is retained by the farmer. The bag is sealed with a tamper-proof sticker and submitted to the AGD. Farmers carry out the collection of samples and follow the packaging procedure without compromising accuracy. Each animal is also branded and ear-tagged for visual identification and to add value to the system.
Hope for resource-limited farmers
The system has now also been adapted for resource-limited farmers. The initial objective of the SRL-LidCat project, launched in 2005, was to combat stock theft, specifically of cattle, in the tribal areas. Initially regions in Limpopo were targeted as that was where stock theft was most rife. Farmers were trained in the field to use the system. It costs R10 to catalogue an animal on the LidCat system and the sample is stored indefinitely or until the owner requests it be removed. If an animal is stolen, illegally moved or even slaughtered, a sample of the animal or its suspected remains, including a bloody knife and clothes can be taken and the DNA profile compared to that of the stored reference sample. When an official SAPS stock theft case is opened, the owner doesn’t pay for the analysis.
This technique is the most powerful, accurate and foolproof means of positive identification available, and it’s an independent control to authenticate other identification systems. It can also establish whether the original identification has been tampered with or changed between the first and second sampling.
The SAPS confirms that stock theft has declined dramatically in the LidCat target areas, to the delight and satisfaction of farmers. There has never been a single court case involving the theft of an animal on the LidCat system. Although quantifying data is lacking, it does confirm the system is a deterrent to stock theft and reduces the finance losses of already resource-strained farmers. LidCat farmgate warning signs will also soon be available.
Developments and future perspectives
Benefits of the LidCat system include insight gained through dialogue between scientists and communities, enabling capacity building and the formulation of a future strategy for the project. With access to the animals of resource-limited farmers the ARC investigated the potential to expand and add further value to the project. In collaboration with two companies Intervet/Schering-Plough and GMP Traceability, a subsequent pilot project has evaluated the integrating of DNA technology with a management system using veterinary, nutritional and breeding data collected during sampling. This has been applied to the daily management of animals.
Although its outcome is currently being evaluated, it can potentially contribute significantly to the project’s value chain. Another exciting prospect is to assess certain genetic parameters, including the levels of genetic diversity and inbreeding, within and among cattle populations in the formal tribal areas. If budgets permit, available samples could also be tested for paternity and specific genetic defects.
The ARC will investigate expanding the project’s goals to include providing genetic information to farmers, particularly valuable as the population genetics of their cattle are poorly documented. The ARC could then make recommendations on the genetic management of cattle in South Africa’s former tribal areas, contributing to the sustainability of resource-limited farmers. The project could develop into a national initiative to sample and identify animals across all provinces, provided resources are made available for building suitable logistic capacity. A workshop is being planned for all roleplayers to determine the way forward.
Contact Ronwe Wolmarans or Ben Greyling at the ARC on (012) 672 9034 or e-mail [email protected]. This is an abridged version of a more technical article. For the original contact Auriel Mitchley at (011) 889 0796 or
e-mail [email protected]. |fw