RFID tags can be useful to you, the Canadian cattle producers, as well as for traceability and unique animal identification purposes. More uses are emerging all the time. I will be the first to admit there have been problems in the past such as deadline changes, retainability and in rare cases inability to read them with automatic readers. Near 100 per cent compliance at auction markets and in feedlots is hard to achieve. But if we don’t strive for a near-perfect result, we won’t come close to achieving it.
More recent studies have focused on the retention issues, and better materials will probably improve that weakness in the future. With the abuse these tags face is it any wonder they get ripped out or simply wear out? A 100 per cent compliance rate is almost impossible to attain in cattle with short, frozen ears or hard-to-tag bulls. A small percentage had defective chips that were not picked up by the readers.
Enough said about some of the obstacles we face. There are still many positive uses for the tags.
A tag reader will make your job a lot easier. They can be a great time-saver if reading tags on fractious or flighty cattle. Some readers have been developed so they can be mounted on chutes. Make sure if you purchase one that it has a long wand so that it’s safe to use. Also ensure it can store a large number of tag numbers and that the information can be downloaded.
Most readers on the market can now read both the full-duplex and half-duplex fairly well. Readers seldom have incompatibility issues these days, although they do seem slower to read the full-duplex.
A great number of progressive producers have set up scales in their chutes. Many of these scales include programs to input data so having chute-side readers tied in to the RFID tags makes total sense. When cattle are first age-verified, many programs allow for additional identification information. Handlers can enter both the description (colour) and the dangle tag. The reader can then pick up the RFID tag and the computer program can often automatically enter information such as weight, health information and vaccines that have been given. Producers can enter this information at the start of the day if they’re giving the same thing to every animal. Then each time the reader scans an animal that data is entered into the database.
On a simpler, practical scale, the RFID acts as a second, cross-reference tag. If the dangle tag is lost it can be found when cross-referenced to the RFID tag. In the past community pastures often used the clip-on metal tags to accomplish this. We now have a built-in cross referencing system.
For that reason, most purebred breeders individually age-verify their calves at birth and cross-reference the ear tags to the registered tattoo. Often purebred calves are not tattooed until later in life. Age-verifying at birth ensures this critical information is not lost. Gone are the days when a good memory would help with identification based on colour. So many herds are solid black or solid red or all red-white faces. Identification is critical on these high-pedigreed cattle.
In the dairy industry, large transponders are still used to individually meter out feed in the milking parlour or at feeding stations. Sorting gates leading from the parlour automatically separate cows requiring palpations for herd health. This same function can be achieved now with the RFID tags and readers at different feeding stations and gates. Robotic milkers also register how often and for how long cows are milked daily, as well as whether milk needs to be discarded from treated cows. All these new advancements can piggyback the technology available in the RFID tags.
The same technologies are used for automatic sorting gates in the sheep industry and a system was recently deployed over a large walk-over scale placed in a bison pen. Bison can be trained to walk over it, allowing handlers to sort the pen by weight, for example. A signal triggers a gate to open, and a certain weight range can be collected. Essentially, a whole pen is sorted without doing anything. This same technology could prove very useful in the feedlot sector as well. It could eliminate any chance for processing or sorting injuries.
I know of several researchers using GrowSafe feed stations with RFID tags to identify individual animals and measure each animal’s feed consumption. I was involved with a trial using an infrared camera to measure eye temperature. When cattle came to a watering bowl each animal was identified by the RFID tag linked to the dangle tag. This trial looked at early identification of bovine respiratory disease. Water consumption, movement of animals and many other applications can all be linked to the RFID tags.
Veterinarians have developed customized herd health programs and the ability to cull based on performance by using RFID tags as identification tools. As they treat each animal, they scan the tag. They can then easily calculate treatment outcome parameters.
Since each tag number is unique it is the trump card for identification when it comes to export testing. The same cross-reference can be applied to all the other production animal species with the exception of chickens. Other diversified livestock species such as elk, bison or deer are also using the technology and it works well as a cross-identification indicator.
Bison seem to wear the tags out. Perhaps longer shafts on the buttons will allow freer movement and less tag loss in all species. As better materials and applicators are tried perhaps the retention rate will improve. This will give everyone along the food chain, from producer to consumer, useful information.
There have been instances of community pastures or pasture co-operatives wanting to access tag information from CFIA to help identify owners of lost calves. They were denied this information. I know the original purpose was to help in trace-outs with reportable diseases. However, I wish the government would allow certain exceptions, as this is information the public does not have access to. Rules need to change with guidelines.
I’d also like to see the owner identified in specific instances such as disease outbreaks in feedlots, belly nuts, or lost cattle. When a few producers don’t vaccinate for bovine viral diarrhea or don’t carefully band castrate young calves, it leads to major problems in the feedlot. This would help the whole industry. This second stage of identification could also eliminate the need for branding. In the rare event of a dispute, we could take DNA from the hair.
Researchers are currently working on ultra-high frequency (UHF) tags where multiple tags can be read simultaneously and from a greater distance. This would allow auction markets and feedlots to process cattle quickly. It would also be useful when transporting cattle. We could potentially read the whole liner. When exporting cattle, it may eliminate the need to unload at the border, which is a wasted procedure in my opinion.
Once we have tags we can read from a distance, inventory control or identifying cattle with drones may become commonplace. Let’s keep finding ways to use this RFID technology. Doing so puts us far ahead of the U.S. in terms of herd identification and movement.
Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.