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Satellite ear tags for livestock coming to Canada

Canadian producers involved in international trial of Australian-based direct-to-satellite smart ear tag

Ceres Tag CEO David Smith with tag and applicator.

When Heather Mundt sought an alternative to branding, a new livestock ear tag in development on the other side of the world opened the door for new management decision possibilities.

Heather and her husband Brenton, who run a cow-calf operation and grain farm at Oyen, Alta., were interested in GPS ear tags for identification and financing purposes, as well as simplifying the process of checking their cattle.

“We’re spread out over 55 miles and seven different pastures, so for us to go check our cattle is pretty much a six- to eight-hour project,” says Brenton. “If we could have constant awareness of where our cattle are, then that would save a lot of trips.”

When Heather came across Australia’s Ceres Tag, she learned it could provide the solutions she was looking for, as well as numerous other opportunities. Marketed as the world’s only direct-to-satellite smart livestock ear tag, Ceres Tag is on track to be a game changer. Along with its GPS capabilities, Ceres Tag is an accelerometer with RFID technology, the first of its kind designed to meet accreditation guidelines with national livestock traceability programs.

“Ceres Tag is years ahead of anybody else,” says Heather. “We’re so excited to see what they can do on our farm.”

Need for better data

David Smith, CEO of Ceres Tag, was raised on a large beef operation in Australia and worked as an engineer on projects around the world. When he returned to his family’s farm, he noticed a lack of cattle-specific data that could be used to drive their business.

“We’re running 1,000 head of cattle, and we saw that there was a need for better data to be able to make better decisions,” says Smith.

The Ceres Tag was developed in Australia, but Canadian producers are trialing the tags this year. photo: Supplied by Ceres Tag

After a year of investigating the possibilities, David and Melita Smith established Ceres Tag in 2016. In 2018, the company partnered with Meat and Livestock Australia and CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, to create an ear tag that could measure data on several fronts, and the first prototype was developed that year. Funding from the federal and Queensland governments helped move the product towards the commercialization stage.

With a solar panel on its face, the tag sits on the back of the animal’s ear for optimal sunlight exposure and low-orbit satellite reception. The back of the tag has a twin pin and is designed to require less application force, with the security to keep the tag intact for the animal’s lifetime. Each tag lasts more than 10 years to ensure lifetime coverage.

In addition to having multiple capabilities, Smith wanted the tag to operate in a specific way for ease of use. “It had to be satellite-enabled so you didn’t have to put up infrastructure,” he says.

As well, tags are sold without ongoing subscription fees. “It’s scalable that way so you can just buy as many tags as what suits you in boxes of 24. So if you can only afford a certain amount one year or you only want to do a certain number, then that’s okay.”

Information is reported multiple times daily and transmitted to a central data platform. From there, data is transmitted to partnering software platforms, allowing the producer to access this information using their existing data management platform of choice.

By monitoring livestock through GPS, Ceres Tag can be used to locate individual animals, track pasture use and alert producers to breakouts, theft or predation. As well, it can provide more accurate asset records, which can easily be sent to an insurance company or financial institution.

The tag’s advanced accelerometer monitors and characterizes animal behaviours, from everyday functions to behaviours that indicate estrus, stress or the animal’s health status. The tag also includes Bluetooth technology to allow new algorithms to be uploaded to an individual animal’s tag, measuring performance at each stage of the production process.

More recently, Ceres Tag announced the addition of eGrazor technology. This technology, developed by CSIRO, is a sensor that uses specific algorithms to monitor a wide variety of cattle behaviours, including pasture feed intake.

“There’s a range of different algorithms that contribute to the feed intake,” says Lewis Frost, Ceres Tag’s chief operating officer. “We’re looking at the relationships between eating and grazing behaviours, so they’re actually slightly different if you’re eating ration… and actually plucking and consuming forage from the pasture.”

By tracking other behaviours, such as drinking and ruminating, it improves the accuracy of recording an animal’s feed intake, narrowing in on the actual time an individual spends grazing.

“Accurate measurement of pasture intake using the eGrazor technology holds the key to more efficient cattle through monitoring feed efficiency, providing valuable phenotypic data to aid in selection decisions,” states a recent press release.

Although the pasture feed intake algorithm was designed for grass-fed production systems, such as the extensive open grazing systems used in Australia, the team is developing new algorithms to fit different types of cattle, production systems and environments.

With this advanced level of monitoring, Smith predicts producers will find value in having this data that they may not have anticipated, contributing to an operation’s profitability.

“It has a pretty powerful impact, and no matter whether you’re a producer, a government department, a financier or whatever it is, everyone needs the data to be able to improve what they do.”

Creating new market opportunities

The Mundts plan to make the most of the potential impact of Ceres Tag, using the data collected to create a new market for their beef with a direct line of communication to the consumer.

“We’re planning on tagging not only some of our cows but some of our calves that are going to start into this marketing program, and once they come to market, that’s going to be a big play for us, I think, financially,” says Brenton.

Smith directed them to Aglive, an Australian blockchain software company, as a platform to transfer the data collected on their cattle down the supply chain. The couple has already lined up a processor for this venture and are hoping to tap into the growing number of consumers seeking locally produced food.

“When it does get to the customer — whether that’s in a restaurant or a store, wherever it is that they pick up the meat — they can have a QR code showing them where that meat came from, and that is something we’ll be able to use to communicate with the customer,” says Heather.

The team at Ceres Tag is excited about this opportunity to leverage management practices into consumer connection. “We have the technology to generate so much information on these animals on-farm, but we’re not seeing that translate into consumers’ understanding how those animals are produced and the effort and quality that’s gone into putting that steak on their plate,” says Frost in a June 2020 webinar.

“So we really want to do that by tracking our devices and taking that data right through the entire supply chain to really look at a provenance, traceability and welfare layer of data that’s like a golden thread throughout the industry.”

To allow for this and the tag’s other capabilities, the development process has been a global collaboration. “To be able to put something together as complex as this to make it look so simple, you have to use the best people from around the world,” says Smith.

The team partnered with New Zealand’s Rezare Systems for the tag’s security and back-end data diagnostics and Global Star in the U.S. on the satellite capabilities. After a series of successful trials at home in Australia, the next trial period will focus on international markets. As a lead-up to the tag’s commercial launch, trials will take place in early 2021 in nine different countries, including Canada.

Smith explains that North America will be an important market. The company has been working with partners in Alberta and Saskatchewan to better understand the needs of Canadian beef producers. The Mundts will be part of this large-scale trial in February and March. As part of their specific trial, they have applied for funding to start the testing required for Canadian Food Inspection Agency tag accreditation.*

“From a company point of view, we want to be seen as a local company acting locally. We don’t know what the full benefits are in every region of the world in which we’re going to operate,” says Smith.

“That’s why reaching out to Heather and Brenton to collaboratively trial these tags together will provide not just the feedback for our company to continuously improve what we do, but hopefully it will also help the local producers.”

While cattle are the primary focus for the tag’s launch, the upcoming trial will include other species. In Australia, a number of feral pigs will be tagged and tracked for biosecurity purposes. Tags have also been sold for some protected giraffes and rhinos in Africa to prevent poaching. The company aims to develop a miniaturized version of the tag in the next few years for small ruminants.

Although the next trial phase will help determine how the tag can be used around the world, Smith sees value no matter where or how it’s used. “Although it is initially the producers who will be paying for the tags, eventually that cost will transfer down the supply chain because people will seek out to have that ability to gather the data along the way,” he says.

“It will become a supply chain necessity not just for the end product but also the way in which you do business from… People will make decisions and get the benefits from the information that will be now available.”

The tags will be widely available to purchase on the Ceres Tag website in May 2021.

*Note: The story originally stated that tag accreditation was handled by the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA). Although the CCIA facilitated the testing, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) developed the accreditation standards for tags through a committee. 

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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