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UHF tags back in the limelight

They offer greater reading range and a memory

The use of ultra-high-frequency (UHF) technology for animal identification as an alternative or compliment to low-frequency (LF) technology is a fairly recent development around the world.

In Canada, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) Polytechnic’s UHF radio frequency identification (RFID) project funded by the Alberta Meat and Livestock Agency (ALMA) now has 650 UHF tags in the field for testing (Canadian Cattlemen, October, 2011), and AniTrace, a subsidiary of Hana Micron of Korea, has started working with ranchers and feedlots to field test its UHF system.

Plans call for putting approximately 100,000 AniTrace UHF tags into circulation here this year, says Chuck Cosgrove, an Albertan who worked on the Alberta auction market traceability study and is now based in Utah as director of sales and marketing with AniTrace.

He made the trip back home to give government and industry representatives a preview of the company’s UHF technology at an event organized by Alberta Agriculture and the Southern Alberta Livestock Exchange at the Highwood Auction Market near High River.

A dangle-style UHF RFID tag, hand-held and stationary readers, and a web-based server that can communicate with any type of management software program comprise the AniTrace system.

The system was proven in Brazil, where the government invited Hana Micron to bid on supplying an animal identification system to meet the country’s traceability needs following a foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak there. The company realized LF tags wouldn’t be adequate to meet the requirements and it would need to develop a new technology and it had to be inexpensive, Cosgrove explains. AniTrace has been in widespread use for traceability throughout Brazil since 2009 and Korea since 2011, again on the heels of an FMD outbreak.

In 2010, USDA approved the AniTrace UHF tag for use in the U.S. It is one of two UHF tags currently available in the U.S. where tagging cattle moving interstate became mandatory on March 11.

The UHF super-thin flat antenna in the AniTrace tag is moulded into the dangle part of the tag, as opposed to being sandwiched between two layers of thermoplastic polyurethane. The stud is the common style that can be applied with an Allflex applicator.

The tags can be read up to 12 feet with the hand-held reader and 21 feet with a stationary reader. The company is currently designing a larger tag and a new antenna in the reader to add another five feet to its range.

By radio frequency industry standards, the read rate of LF tags is classified as low because they have to be read one at a time. UHF technology can read multiple numbers simultaneously, giving it a moderate speed rating.

Trucking companies use the same technology to track vehicles moving at highway speeds, so it is more than sufficient to read tagged animals as they move through an alley. The readers have a built-in safeguard to prevent double counting the same number.

UHF tags have a built-in memory making it possible to write information directly to the tag using a smartcard built into the hand-held reader. Data can be retrieved directly from the tag in the same way, or from the AniTrace server when the reader is operating where Wi-Fi or cellphone service is available.

A portion of the memory is secure, meaning only people with proper authorization can write information to the tag and it can’t be erased. This part of the memory could be used to store owner and premise identification numbers so that a permanent record of ownership and the animal’s whereabouts would be with it at all times.

The non-secure part of the memory is erasable and useful for entering information such as treatment protocol codes and withdrawal dates that can be viewed by anyone in the production chain using an AniTrace reader.

It’s not always necessary to write information to the tag because all of the data associated with each tag number is stored on the AniTrace server and can be retrieved or sent using the AniTrace hand-held reader or connecting it to a computer, Cosgrove explains.

He gives the example of downloading information on a group of animals from the server to the hand-held reader before leaving for a pasture in a remote area so that day’s treatments can be recorded in the reader and uploaded to the server when you’re back home.

The hand-held reader has 8MB of flash memory and 16MB of RAM memory. It looks much like a bank card processor with the keys below an LCD display and the receiving antenna located in a flat head protruding from the top to read UHF tags and a port to attach LF hand-held readers. In addition to being set up to handle smartcards and wireless for real-time updates and synchronization with the AniTrace server, it has a slot for magnetic swipe cards to authorize transactions, a built-in printer for receipts, and GPS integration with Google Earth.

As with LF technology, the receiving antenna (reader) has to be in direct line with the tag’s antenna. UHF signals will transmit through a single wall, but because they are short, they won’t bend around corners or leap hills and tall buildings — that’s why broadcasting and communication industries use repeaters to relay UHF signals.

UHF signals won’t transmit through flesh, therefore, the stationary antennas need to be positioned overhead, typically four at slightly differing angles across a 16-foot alley. The only time a number could be missed is if an animal ducks its head under another animal as it passes under all of the receiving antennas.

Arrangements have been made to test the AniTrace system in a couple of U.S. auction markets with data uploads from the tags through the AniTrace server to the markets’ existing management software programs when the cattle are dropped off. The company is also developing an auto-sort gate system that works off the scale weight to sort cattle with the RFID and pen numbers recorded by the system.

According to Cosgrove, tag losses in Brazil have been estimated at 0.07 per cent over the past two years. By far, the biggest reason for loss is the tag ripping through the ear. However, extremely cold weather conditions in Canada could present challenges, though the tags have been lab certified for working environments as low as -22 C.

“We are definitely interested in hearing from Canadian producers who are willing to use the system, judge it and provide useful feedback,” Cosgrove says. The company will supply a limited number of tags and readers to co-operating producers.

AniTrace tags currently retail in the U.S. for $2.50 with significant volume discounts. The hand-held readers cost approximately $1,300, while stationary readers in various styles are priced at $150. The tags and readers are commercially available from AniTrace while arrangements are being made for distribution in Canada.

For more information, call Cosgrove at 1-801-885-6334, or visit www.anitrace.net. C

There are several steps involved in approving new tagging technologies that affect the Canadian Livestock Tracking System (CLTS) and traceability.

Currently, Canada and several other countries use the ISO 11784/11785 LF radio frequency RFID standard for animal identification.

Applications for new equipment that fall outside the current standard must fit in with the proposed national testing framework on identification devices, which calls for a cost-benefit analysis before any new technology is accepted into the national system.

“Any technology that is not backwards compatible will make the installed base of technology (readers, tags and scanners) redundant,” explains Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA) animal identification expert and technical advisory committee member, Paul Laronde. He is also an industry representative for Canada on ISO (International Organization for Standardization) working Group 3 on electronic animal identification.

“Producers, industry and governments have significant investments in the current technology, therefore, the cost-benefit analysis is critical to understand before accepting or rejecting any new technology.”

As an industry-led organization that administers the national animal identification program and manages the CLTS database, Laronde says CCIA would likely be directed by industry to stay in step with Canada’s trading partners.

The process starts with CCIA’s technical committee, which has recently opened a research and development file on UHF systems. The committee reports its findings to the CCIA board, which in turn, recommends new technologies to the CFIA for final approval.

Considering the industry’s current focus on tag retention, Laronde sees the large, flat and rigid dangle-type tag required to accommodate the UHF antenna as a major shortcoming because those characteristics have a negative impact on ear tag retention.

Phil Rowland, a High River rancher and chair of Alberta’s Livestock Identification Services (LIS) sees potential in the UHF technology. “This (AniTrace) system is close to what we’re looking for, but it still needs some tweaking to get more distance to target an animal,” he says. “It seems affordable enough and, if approved, industry will buy in if it has value, that is if it’s useful and workable for the industry. The benefit for LIS is that UHF technology will go hand in hand with e-manifest technology as both develop.”

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