As Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada moves ahead with implementing full traceability of livestock next year, they will at some point have to start reporting the movement of cattle at the 84 federally managed communal pastures in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta.
The government’s own trials with panel and wand readers to track cattle in or out of the Excel, Bitter Lake and Wolverine pastures in Saskatchewan and the Ellice-Archie pasture in Manitoba this summer suggests it will be quite a chore.
Project leader Ron Macdonald says their only goal was to see how well this equipment captures RFID tag numbers under normal working conditions. An exception was made at the Excel and Ellice-Archie pastures where the cattle were unloaded into a single alley at arrival to run them past panel readers. Normally cattle on liners are unloaded onto a ramp, and those arriving in a stock trailer are unloaded into five-foot wide sorting alleys.
One issue for community pastures is the fact that the equipment must simultaneously scan everything from small calves to large mature cows, even when they bunch up in the alley. And of course, these cattle often arrive in large groups.
Since most of these facilities are outdoors the equipment must function in all sorts of weather. Reliable power is an issue with panel readers and the exposed batteries for these units caused some concerns about battery life and safety.
Macdonald says the excessive rainfall this summer created huge problems in moving and operating the mobile panel readers. When equipment quits in the middle of a run the cattle can’t be held back until it is repaired and it’s not always a quick fix.
Even in good weather there are challenges. During a demonstration of the setup at the Excel pasture under ideal conditions the panel readers registered only three RFID numbers from four animals as they moved slowly past the equipment.
The problem then becomes what to do with the animal that is missed? At these busy times when cattle are arriving or departing there’s no time or manpower to run cattle through a second or third time, or to have someone walk around a pen with a wand looking for a few missing tags. Likewise letting animals wander around in a pen fitted with a panel reader until it eventually picks up all their numbers isn’t an option with these setups.
Compared with the managers’ actual head counts, the preliminary take-in data shows panel readers recorded a low of 76 per cent of the cattle at one community pasture to a high of 93 per cent at another. The average was 84 per cent. The performance of the wand readers ranged
from 10 per cent to 84 per cent for an average of 58 per cent. A certain percentage of RFID tags simply didn’t scan at any distance and others had to be touched by the wand.
The limited range of the wand, even with an extension added, was one of the biggest challenges for pasture managers. Often, the technician had to lean over the cattle in the alley to scan calves crowded between larger animals and those on the opposite side of the chute. Sometimes it was difficult to maintain the flow of the cattle as they moved past the technician.
Larger cattle occasionally became wedged between panel readers installed on opposite sides of a single-file chute, and calves often got turned around in the alley increasing the risk of injury, particularly when the alley started to narrow.
Read percentages dropped whenever two or more calves passed the panels at the same time.
Staff also found the menu on the panel reader a bit complex to keep up with when large numbers were being brought in or shipped out of the facility. They also found they needed to take accurate notes on lost tags or problems while working the cattle to cross-reference with data downloaded from the panel and wand readers.
Susie Miller, the director general of the AAFC food value chain bureau and department spokesperson for traceability, says the results of these trials will be analysed this winter to try and understand what caused the wide variability between pastures and what can be done about it.
“If there is an ideal design or series of designs, what would they look like? What would the changes have to look like? What kind of software would be needed? These are the types of questions we want to be able to answer,” she says. “Private community pastures may be interested in what we learn and we want to make sure the results are usable by everyone.”
A final report with internal cost estimates and recommendations on the feasibility of implementing full traceability at AAFC community pastures is expected in the new year.
The equipment must simultaneously scan everything from small calves to large mature cows