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Tagging Study Raises Questions – for Aug. 9, 2010

In July 2009 the federal/provincial agriculture ministers set a target of 2011 to establish mandatory traceability for livestock across Canada. In June 2010, almost a year later, the first of two studies headed up by the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA) began revealing the practical difficulties of meeting that target.

In partnership with the Livestock Market Association of Canada, tag readers were set up in eight markets across four provinces. Some read tags in the ring, some read them as the cattle arrived. One market monitored cattle in a dual alley, two read tags as they passed in a single alley, and the rest ran cattle past scanners in wide alleys more common in markets today.

The results were instructive.

Scanners placed in the sale ring had the least effect on the flow of cattle through the market, ranging from a few minutes most days to a 14-minute delay on one occasion. Installations in the receiving area, on the other hand, more regularly added seven to 10 minutes to the time needed to sell some groups, stretching the time of sales by as much as two hours in one case.

The consistency with which these systems were able to read the ID tags varied from week to week and market to market. Failures were blamed on a host of problems from poor tag placement to electrical interference, animal behaviour, and varying sizes of cattle.

The two single alley systems processed only 12 per cent of the 144,197 head in the 32,376 groups put through in the eight markets during the study. Not surprisingly, given the close range of the scanner to the tag, the single alley was also the most accurate setup. Scanners read 96 to 99 per cent of the tags going through the single chute each week. It was also the slowest and most labour intensive of the systems.

By comparison, weekly data capture rates in the dual alley ranged from a low of 86 to high of 93 per cent.

The success rate was slightly higher in the wide alleys, which processed 72 per cent of all the cattle included in the study. Weekly rates varied from 88 to 96 per cent. Smaller groups were easier to scan. Read accuracy was 96 per cent when reading groups of one to five head, and 93 per cent with six to 10 head in a group. In four of the markets 95 per cent of the groups contained fewer than 10 head.

The research team set 95 per cent as the benchmark for a high accuracy rating, and most markets on most days couldn’t hit that mark. So-called global accuracy ratings across all markets ranged from 91 to 94 per cent per week, or 93 per cent overall.

To equip the 150 auction markets in Canada with one RFID system would cost $8.6 million, according to the study. Add another $2.6 million per year for what the markets would have to spend on extra labour and maintenance. It remains unclear how much of this will have to be paid by auction market owners. No direct benefits to the markets were identified by using this equipment, other than keeping the agriculture ministers happy. The second phase of the study will look for potential benefits.

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