Wayne Small likes to be in the middle of the action. He and his partner Murray Morrison own and operate Ontario Livestock Inc. a large, modern sale barn just outside Cookstown, about 50 kilometres north of Toronto.
On sale days, Small works on the sales ring floor, operating the gate that lets the cattle in to be sold.
“We’re one of the three largest sales barns in the province,” he says after his stint working in the sales ring. “One week we might sell the most cattle. Another week it might be one of the others.”
Beginning in the summer of 2009 Ontario Livestock Inc. was one of nine auction barns across the country that participated in a Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA) project to test radio frequency identification technologies. The first of three phases of the project ended in January 2010 and a report on the findings was released in June.
For the first phase of the study, special handling facilities were constructed and the electronic hardware to read and record the information on electronic eartags was installed and tested. The CCIA’s goal was to assess the government’s target of a 95 per cent accuracy rate. “The technology and processes must meet the needs of the auction markets by not impeding commerce or causing additional stress for the livestock,” the CCIA said.
At the Cookstown sales barn an alleyway has been set up in a corner of the barn that leads to the scale where the cattle are weighed before they go into the ring. The alleyway is about four feet wide with solid wood panels on the sides. Four sensors are mounted on each side that read the tags as the cattle move through. On the wall above the alley eight electronic boxes display the readings.
The CCIA hired an employee to record the accuracy of the tag readers as each group of cattle was moved through. She sat in a small hut overlooking the alleyway where she recorded the results on a computer.
“The workers sorting the cattle would use hand signals to let the woman know how many head were coming through,” says Small. “If the sensors didn’t get the right number, the cattle were turned around and put through again.”
Small says the accuracy varied around 90 per cent, and the technology is only in its very early stages and has a long way to go.
“I would say it has to be improved by 25 per cent. The government wants 95 per cent accuracy but that’s not good enough. To work for us it has to be 100 per cent.”
Accuracy is only one of a number of concerns Small has about the technology and the goals of the project. The government has set 2011 as the deadline for implementing the electronic tag-reading program. It would affect more than 150 auction markets across the country.
“I think they’re at least two or three years away,” says Small. “The real issue is that the technology has to meet the needs of the industry, not the other way around.”
The tag-reading facility at Cookstown is a wide alley system, one of three designs being tested. The others are a single alley that lets one animal through at a time and a dual alley which is two single alleys side by side.
“The wide alley is the only design that is practical,” says Small. “A single alley doesn’t work because it has to accommodate animals of every size. A bull would get trapped in an alley small enough to keep a calf from turning around.
“And what if a cow stops in a single alley? We’d have to shut everything down to get the bull or the cow out. Because the dual alley is two singles side by side it has the same problems. In this business we have to make a sale every 1-1/2 minutes. If we don’t we won’t be in business.”
Though the wide alley is the most efficient in moving cattle, Small says it poses a technical problem. In a space wide enough to let several animals through at once, sometimes the tags are too far away from the sensors to be read. All nine test sites are using the same tags, the ones currently being sold to producers.
“I think they have to look at using other kinds of tags,” says Small. “They’re trying to design a system with sensors that have to read tags that are less than two feet away when they should be able to read tags at least four feet away.”
Small also says there’s a problem with “lazy tags” which will not read. “Maybe it’s because they’ve got millions of this one kind of tag out there they’re not looking at others.”
While Small has several criticisms and questions about the technology he is even more concerned about who will pay for the initial installation and ongoing maintenance and upgrades of the systems.
“We started to build our test alley in the summer of 2009,” says Small. “CCIA supplied the electronics and we paid the construction costs. It took three months to build and we had to hire extra people. It cost us many thousands of dollars. We agreed to participate in the project because we thought it was important to do what we could to help the industry but when it becomes mandatory, who’s going to pay?”
The Cookstown auction has experience with the costs of electronic tag- reading equipment. Before the CCIA test project started it installed four electronic tag readers of its own in a second smaller ring at the sales barn used to sell dairy cattle and slaughter cows.
“Each individual sensor and its electronic equipment cost $8,000,” says Small. “And when they had to be sent out for maintenance the bill was $2,000. This stuff is not cheap.”
Small bristles at suggestions that marts should simply raise their commission rates to cover the costs.
“That’s what they always say,” growls Small. “The government is great at coming up with rules and regulations and then expecting somebody else to pay. If the government wants this they should pay for it. This is not the stockyard’s responsibility so we shouldn’t have to pay. And if we raise our commissions then it’s the farmer who pays. They’re already suffering enough.”
The second phase of the CCIA research project is scheduled to start in August. One of its objectives is to test software that will feed the electronic tag information that is collected into the sale barn’s computer system. Small says this is a critical link in the system.
“Any information that goes into our computers has to be 100 per cent accurate. Our business is so automated that when a farmer sells his cattle in the ring by the time he walks down to the office there is a cheque waiting for him. This is all done without any human intervention and the tag reading has to operate the same way. If there are mistakes they will cost us time and money. This is why the tag reading has to be 100 per cent accurate.”
Despite any frustrations, it’s obvious Small enjoys his work and is proud of his accomplishments. When he walks around his sales barn there is a spring in his step and plenty of good-natured banter with his employees and customers.
“I started in this business in 1961,” he says. “And all these years later we’re doing the same thing — selling livestock to people who want to buy them. The only difference is now there are four times the hassles.”