New RFID tech improves livestock tag readers

New system works at greater distance and can read groups of animals

Researchers at SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary have developed a new Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) system using Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) tags that will make it easier and faster to track and trace cattle at every stage of their movement from the farm to the processing plant.

With the new system, animals do not need to go through a squeeze chute because it reads the new UHF-RFID tags from up to 30 feet away, and records and tracks data from multiple animals at once.

“Producers can read the tags of groups of animals en route as they move them from pen to pen or pasture to pasture,” says Glen Kathler, the scientist leading the research team, which recently received an award for Innovation in Agricultural Science at the 2015 ASTech Awards. “It will make the whole movement and tracking of animals a lot more efficient and accurate all the way through the supply chain, and minimize stress on the animals, which has an effect on animal performance and productivity.”

Improved traceability

Kathler says the system will also close any existing gaps in traceability, especially from the feedlot to the processing plant.

“We will be able to create an electronic manifest, untouched by human hands, of animal movement through different production stages right to the plant, so any trace-back in the event of a disease outbreak will involve a few keystrokes rather than days of searching to discover what animals have been co-mingled.”

Reducing stress and saving costs

Early production UHF-RFID tags will cost around $5 each and a wide-alley, fixed-reader system and associated software will cost about $10,000. Kathler’s team has done an economic analysis that showed an average Alberta feedlot could potentially save $87,920 through adopting UHF-RFID technology. They estimated about $14 per animal could be saved by not putting it through a squeeze chute, which has been shown to reduce body weight by one per cent due to stress on the animal.

Kathler anticipates savings will increase as UHF-RFID technology becomes more widely adopted, which will drive down the cost of the systems. He expects to see some commercial UHF-RFID systems in place in 2016.

“To begin with I would expect to see this system being used on feedlots or larger primary operations with some sort of closed-loop, herd-management system,” says Kathler. “But I think we will see increasing interest from within the industry. We see some trials now occurring with the USDA in the United States as well, so it’s gaining momentum.”

SAIT’s RFID Application Development Lab (RADLab) is the first in North America — and one of only three worldwide — to establish an ISO-certified RFID test lab to certify new animal-recording technologies. SAIT researchers are also working with the International Committee for Animal Recording to ensure the lab meets international standards.

Capturing big data

The Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA) contributed $950,000 towards the UHF-RFID project. President and CEO Gordon Cove says it presented a great opportunity.

“SAIT was a good choice as a partner because it was setting up an RFID lab and it made sense to take advantage of its expertise and work on furthering the technology for the benefit of the livestock sector,” says Cove. “Data is king and the more data producers have, the better decisions they can make to improve productivity and performance. This technology has the potential to capture data and tie in genomic, feed-conversion and health information, environmental footprint; the list is endless. We are happy to be a part of making it all happen.”

The UHF-RFID technology is being tested on ranches in Alberta and British Columbia, as well as at feedlots and auction marts, and on transport trucks. The next step is to tie up any loose ends and to work on helping the industry transition to the new technology.

“We are now looking at working with existing industry partners to make combination LF/UHF tags,” Kathler says. “We are also doing some work with smartphone readers that can use both the LF and the new UHF tags on the same device. So we are also thinking about what it’s going to take for the industry to transition. We hope for the next phase of the project to integrate this UHF technology into some of the existing herd-management software. We see it as a great opportunity for the industry.”

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Angela Lovell is a freelance writer based in Manitou, Manitoba. Visit her website at http://alovell.ca or follow her on Twitter @angelalovell10.

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