The search for the perfect, all season, all weather, ever-staying, easy to apply, easy to read, easy to retire electronic ear tag is an ongoing process, says a long-time technical specialist in the livestock ear tag industry.
It is not easy to include all those features in a small plastic button and also have it withstand all the environmental and management variables found in every feedyard and pasture situation, says Paul Laronde, the tag and technology manager with the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA).
Laronde, based at Waterloo, Ont., brought about 17 years of technical and sales experience in the ear tag industry with him about a year ago as he began a search for the better tag on behalf of the national agency charged with keeping track of every beef animal, bison, sheep and goat in the country.
The six electronic or RFID (radio frequency identification) tags approved for use by the CCIA as part of a mandatory identification system, are all good tags says Laronde, but the agency is always open to improvements.
“If we could put a tag in an animal’s ear and it stood in a grassy pasture with no fences, or brush, or bale feeders their whole lives there wouldn’t be an issue,” says Laronde. “But that’s not the reality. These tags are exposed to a lot of adverse situations, so we are always interested in any improvements that can be made in design and application and their effectiveness for storing data. We are always interested in new ideas.”
The six RFID tags approved by CCIA are made by five manufacturers. They are: the Allfex RDX, Allfex HDX, Destron Fearing etag FDX, Reyflex, Y-Tex TechStarr II tag FDX and Zee tags. All have a very similar design — a small plastic two-piece disk that carries copper and silicone electronic components for storing information. And the male and female parts of the disk lock into each other when pressed together with a vice-grip-like applicator.
Paul Laronde wants to know what problems, if any, producers are having with RFID tags, with hopes that better education and any design improvements will keep them where they are supposed to be.
EASE OF READING
While most producers and cattle feeders are primarily concerned at how well these $3 to $4 tags stay in the ear of all ages and class of cattle ranging from newborn calves to 12-year-old cows, Laronde also has to be concerned at how well they work in storing and yielding data on an individual animal.
They have to be easy to apply or install in the ear, they need to have optimum retention, since they are required to stay with the animal from the farm until slaughter, and that could be years. The information stored in the tag has to be readable by an electronic scanner at a reasonable distance. They have to be fairly easy to remove, and they have to be self-immobilizing once they are retired, so they can’t be used again.
Other options such as implants have been considered. An under-the- skin capsule implant, not much bigger than a grain of rice would be capable of storing required data. And the risk of being lost would be zero unless that chunk of tissue where the capsule was implanted was gouged out of the hide. But scanners able to retrieve capsule information have to be held only a couple inches from the capsule to work, making it impractical in feedlot and packing plant situations. The capsules are made of glass, copper and silicone, leaving packers uneasy about the implants being used around meat. Overall, it’s a good concept, but not one that really works for cattle.
All CCIA-approved tags are tested for their ability to store and yield information, but also for physical retention in the ear. All tags must first meet ICAR standards — that’s the International Committee of Animal Recording standards. That means they are laboratory tested for strength of material and design.
The tags are tested at temperature extremes of -30 C and +40 C to make sure the plastic and joining mechanism doesn’t fail under cold and hot conditions.
And there are different levels of retention testing to see how well they stay in the ear. On one level, 1,100 tagged animals in a feedlot setting are observed for 90 days. Any particular tag must have a 99 per cent retention rate in order to be approved. Further to that there are ongoing longer term trials of one year and also three years, with tagged animals checked at intervals — again the minimum requirement is 99 per cent retention. Tag brands that score less than 99 per cent retention are rejected.
SO WHAT GOES WRONG?
While there are reports from some producers that “the tags don’t work,” one part of Laronde’s job is to follow up on complaints to see if there are actual problems with the design or the materials of tags, or if there are other factors involved in tags being lost.
The CCIA has created an on-line complaint form on its website at www.canadaid.com for producers to describe problems with RFID tags.
“I encourage producers to make use of that form,” says Laronde. “We want to know what problems they are having with tags. It may be a design issue, or maybe it is some other matter to address. But I urge producers to get in touch with us first and then once we have the facts we can have a discussion with the manufacturers.”
Laronde asks producers to fill out the complaint form as completely as possible. He wants to know make and model of tags and if it just fell out or did it come apart? Was there a hole in the ear or was it ripped? He’s also looking for details on weather, site-related factors such as fencing and feeders and other herd management practices. He follows up on each complaint.
Laronde has already investigated a number of complaints and finds a range of situations.
“I can’t say that I blame producers, but there are number of environmental and management issues to be considered,” he says.
RFID tag losses are less common in dairy cattle since most live in a controlled environment with fewer hazards. Some beef producers appear to be having no concerns about tag retention, while others do file complaints.
He’s identified several hazards for tags in cattle reared outdoors. Bale twine can remove a tag quickly if it gets caught around the tab at the back of the ear, the cow steps on the string and raises her head, the male pin holding the tag is cut off. Similar losses can be caused by fence wire as animals reach through a fence for that blade of greener grass.
Bale feeders are another common place where ear tags can be lost if they get caught on some part of the feeder frame.
As well, Laronde has seen situations where tags weren’t properly installed. Attaching the tag in the wrong location in the ear is one issue (see placement sidebar). He has seen cases where producers have installed the tags backwards.
Producers also need to make sure tags are installed with the proper tool in good working order. Laronde says the applicator is specific to each brand of tag, so don’t use ABC applicator to apply XYZ tags. And he has seen cases too where the pin that guides the male portion of the tag is bent. It seems to clamp together properly, but if the two sections don’t line up perfectly, the male piece doesn’t lock into the female end properly.
“We want to know if producers feel the tags aren’t working properly — have poor retention, and we are always interested in looking at any improvements in tags,” says Laronde. “Right now we are looking at some new designs that have been submitted by manufacturers, and we will be evaluating those in the future.”
LeeHartiseditorofCattleman’sCornerbased inCalgary.Contacthimat403-592-1964orby emailat [email protected]