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Finally, a shirt-pocket tag reader that talks to your smartphone

Identification: "Herdly" iPhone app aims to be available for the 2018 calving season

A smartphone tag reader and app that the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association has had bubbling on the back burner for several years is being field-tested and could become commercially available next year.

Mark Klassen, the CCA technical director, says CCA has partnered with software developer Cannon Smith of Synergy Farm Solutions, Hill Spring, Alta., to take their “Herdly” iPhone app, and companion desktop software for Mac and Windows to market in time for the 2018 calving season. An app for Android phones will follow in time.

Cow-calf producers are currently testing a prototype tag reader developed in collaboration with researchers at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) in Calgary.

Once the test phase is completed the CCA will approach manufacturers of such devices with a proposal for a partnership arrangement to commercialize the Herdly phone-linked reader.

In the meantime, the app and desktop software is being tested for use with wand readers. Once a tag number is scanned, or manually entered, the app can transmit the data directly to the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency’s (CCIA) traceability database. When working in areas without cell coverage, the data is stored on the phone for later transmission.

“The design of the reader and app has taken into account the preferences of cow-calf producers,” says Klassen.

Indeed, this entire project began as a search for simple answers to producer complaints about handling tag data, after former CCA president Travis Toews identified cost and difficulties uploading data to the CCIA’s database as major issues standing in the way of a user-friendly traceability system.

As technology advanced, Klassen came to realize his best hope to find a solution was to design something from scratch with input from cattle producers. That became possible in 2014 when they received a grant from the former Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (now part of Alberta Agriculture) to determine exactly what cattle producers needed to efficiently read ID tags.

Running with producers’ ideas, the design team at SAIT developed a reader that attached to a smartphone. Using a smartphone to supply the microprocessor seemed the most feasible way to reduce the cost seeing this is the most expensive component in wand readers. And who doesn’t carry a smartphone these days?

Smith, a former cow-calf producer turned custom software developer, drew up a software program and the prototype was ready for a test run.

Two hundred cow-calf producers across Canada gave the first prototype a passing grade but provided some suggestions for improvements.

Most said they would prefer to have a reader that connects wirelessly with a smartphone rather than one directly attached to the smartphone, to protect the phone.

Momentum was building in other quarters, too.

Smith partnered with the CCA to further develop the iPhone app and desktop software. His vision was to enable cow-calf producers to hold their ranch in their hand with all of their management and traceability information easily accessible at any time.

The Canadian Beef Breeds Council, Canadian Angus Association, Canadian Hereford Association, and Canadian Simmental Association lent their support to this project because they saw the potential for breeders transmitting herd data directly from their phone.

By 2016, with financial support from Alberta Agriculture, the team began building a fully functional hand-held reader that connects wirelessly to smartphones, along with the accompanying app for the phone and desktop software. This is the model cow-calf producers are currently testing.

Scott and Brandy Schiffner put it to work on their herd at Strathmore, Alta.

“There is a real need for a lower cost solution to help cow-calf producers with their verification requirements, including record-keeping for programs such as Verified Beef Production,” says Brandy.

Scott likes the fact that the reader fits in his shirt pocket yet has the functionality and a read range close to a full-sized reader. He also likes the instant feedback he gets from a light and vibration that tells him a tag is successfully read. The vibration level can be increased when wearing work gloves.

Klassen says the current device can read a tag within six inches and transmits the number via Bluetooth at least 100 feet to the phone app. The reader itself is water resistant and has multiple points to attach a lanyard for easy handling.

Separating the reader and the phone helps keep the phone out of harm’s way, but both can be operated independently. For example, one person could be scanning tags while another is in a nearby truck or building with the phone, which can be connected to a tablet or laptop.

The phone’s camera can be used to attach a photo of the animal to its record. Enabling GPS will pin its location to the record as well.

All of the data on an animal stored in the smartphone is accessible onsite without cell or internet service. By syncing the phone app to the Cloud files are updated whenever the phone goes online, easing concerns about losing data when a phone is damaged or lost.

Another advantage to storing the data on the Cloud is that everyone on the farm authorized to use the app is able to enter or review the data day or night. Each user’s phone is automatically updated with the most current information entered by other users.

The companion desktop software offers the option of working on a larger screen for those who want to do more with their information than transmit various events to the CCIA database to update traceability records.

Murry Toews of Bar T Cattle Co. was already convinced that there was no future for paper records in their cow-calf operation when he agreed to test the new smartphone reader.

“We can now enter the data once and then use the software to format it for multiple purposes,” he explains.

What’s next? Klassen says producers have indicated they would like a longer reading distance, say 20 feet. Even if the reader could be engineered to do that, it would require the use of ultra-high-frequency (UHF) tags capable of transmitting data over greater distances than the low-frequency (LF) tags currently approved for use in Canada’s traceability system.

With an eye to future needs, the CCA is working toward developing a dual-mode reader for smartphones that would read UHF and LF tags for the time when UHF tags are approved for traceability, or for producers who want to use UHF tags for management records along with LF tags.

Updates on the Herdly app, software and tag reader will be posted on the CCA’s web page as details become available.

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