A system that will trace the movements of cattle and deer could be extended to trace other disease-prone animals such as horses and pigs.
The Agriculture and Forestry Ministry has gone to market for potential suppliers of the National Animal Identification and Tracing system (Nait), which will record stock movements to track animals during outbreaks of disease and to tell consumers where meat comes from.
Nait chairman Ted Coats says the system could trace horses – which are at risk from equine influenza – and cloven-hoofed animals such as sheep, goats and pigs, which could fall victim to a foot and mouth outbreak.
The software could include disease-risk information for potential buyers.
It could also be used to provide information on the fat content of animals and any physical conditions they have such as lameness to show compliance with "minimum carcass condition" requirements of markets such as the European Union.
Farmers could record their "animal status declarations" in the software which, for example, are used to assure meat processors that animals have not been treated with antibiotics in a certain time period leading up to slaughter.
Nait has not committed to extending the functionality of the system, but is looking for systems that could be "built up", he says.
The scheme is expected to cost about $15.7 million to set up and $6m to operate annually, and deliver about $38m in benefits a year.
Farmers are required to tag all deer and cattle with radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips by the middle of 2011, and will have to declare some animal movements to Nait, such as when they transfer animals between farms.
They will do this via the Nait website – either themselves or through "animal information service providers" such as Livestock Improvement Corporation.
Farmers with scanners that can read the Nait tags will be able to upload information automatically to the Nait system, while those without scanners will need to key the information in, or select the animals they have moved from an electronic list.
They will not be required to declare animal movements when they have been transferred to or from an "accredited Nait provider" such as a saleyard, as that provider will record the transaction, Mr Coats says.
"In many instances farmers won't have to do anything."
Farmers without access to the internet can record movements via the Nait contact centre.
"We do not want to incentivise farmers to do that because it is prone to error ... but we appreciate there are some remote people who don't have access to the internet, although that number is decreasing," he says.
Vendors are welcome to "come up with better ideas" for the system.
Federated Farmers has claimed Nait's costs will outweigh its benefits and criticised the use of low-frequency technology in the scheme.
Ultra-high frequency tags can hold more data, be read at a greater distance and multiple tags can be read at once.
Dairy chairman Lachlan McKenzie says it is not against tracing animals for biosecurity purposes, but greater costs and compliance for farmers are a concern.
It is positive that Nait is looking to "future-proof" the system to avoid duplication, but there are potential fish-hooks in automating processes, particularly around internet connectivity and reliability.
"But if it replaces what we're already doing in a cheaper and more efficient manner, then I'm in."