Not much riles up South Dakota cattle rancher Jeff Ebersdorfer, but ask about country-of-origin labeling (COOL) and he's ready to tell you a thing or two.

“COOL and a national animal identification system (NAIS) go hand in hand. One can't be successful without the other, and as consumers demand more information about the foods they eat, producers will need to be held more accountable of their cattle,” says Ebersdorfer, who operates a large commercial cattle operation near Artesian, SD.

For Ebersdorfer, radio-frequency ID (RFID) is the ticket for success. Jeff and wife Molly utilize RFID transponders (tags) and transceivers (readers) to keep accurate records of their cowherd.

“When each tag is read, we can immediately see the cow's performance data, vaccination records, age and source,” he says. “With our electronic ID (EID) technology, we have close to 95% accuracy, but the reader has to be less than 5 in. away from the tag. We retain most of the ear tags, as well, losing less than four annually.”

Bryan Rickard agrees with Ebers-dorfer's views, and he is working hard to mesh COOL with EID validation as the program director for the Kansas Department of Animal Health's NAIS.

“COOL affidavits are a hassle with so much paperwork to keep track of. NAIS would simplify the entire process,” Rickard says. Aside from the marketing purposes of COOL, it would allow quick traceability in animal health emergencies, thus reducing the economic impact on cattlemen.

“Unfortunately, it's going to take a disaster before everyone gets on the NAIS bandwagon,” he notes.

However, not all cattlemen share the same enthusiasm and urgency for incorporating RFID technology into their programs. Even with an explosion of firms offering this technology, the progression of a national system has slowed as technical and political issues have surfaced.

Initial research began in 2003 when Kansas State University (KSU) conducted a cooperative project with USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to evaluate these technology issues and provide producers with an unbiased database of performance results for RFID manufacturers and their products.

“Cattlemen have certainly noticed that there are unique differences in RFID technology, quality and performance,” says KSU research associate Karol Fike, Ph.D. “The opportunity to conduct this research in both laboratory and practical cattle-working environments enhances our understanding of what this technology can provide for U.S. beef producers.”

Establishing standards

KSU's experiment was broken into six segments with the goals of examining the environmental interferences and performance variation on RFID tag and reader reliability and the economic costs of RFID technology implementation among individual manufacturers.

“The absence of minimum performance standards for RFID equipment is apparent, and ongoing testing must be conducted to provide cattle producers with the resources needed to make a technology purchase that will be effective in their operations,” says Dale Blasi, head of KSU's Center for Animal ID.

Blasi and Fike learned several lessons during the course of their research.

  • First, while RFID tags and readers may conform to specific International Standardization Organization (ISO) standards, effective communication between the two technologies still may not occur.

  • Second, the study showed a linear relationship between deviation of resonance frequency and mean read distance of transponders.

Additionally, KSU discovered that read distance in tags is inversely related to voltage response. Equally important, read rates of tags are affected by a combination of factors, including the type of tag and reader used, the orientation of one to the other, and the speed at which the tag moves past the reader.

The study also showed that two of 35 combinations of RFID tag and reader products available didn't meet the standards for a read distance recommendation of 24 in. Moreover, Blasi and Fike learned tags that were broken at application, and percentages retained in ears that were nonfunctional after collection, differed with the tag type.

As expected, predicted read rate of tags at livestock auction markets, feedlots and a packing plant differed with tag type. Another experiment revealed that manufacturer changes in tag metrics can influence read distance capabilities and retention; therefore, tags should be reevaluated for performance each time these metrics are modified. And finally, research confirmed that electromagnetic interferences exist in auction markets, feedlots and abattoirs. The potential impact of these interferences on RFID equipment performance needs to be studied further.

“There are good products out there, new products yet to be tested, products that are changing for the better and products that need to be removed completely from the supply chain,” Blasi says. “Cattle producers deserve the best. Testing will need to continue to keep our database as up to date as possible.”

In conjunction with KSU's hefty research projects on RFID technology, Rickard is working with government and allied industry to craft a set of manufacturer standards. Currently, they must abide by simple ISO standards, which Rickard believes are ineffective.

“Once conformance is validated, nobody enforces ISO standards, and performance isn't measured in a production environment. We need to limit the challenges faced by producers by establishing minimum performance standards,” Rickard says.

Kansas has been investing more time on research, especially trying to figure out how RFID technology can be implemented in livestock markets to facilitate the speed of commerce.

Working with several sale barns in the state, KSU embarked on an on-the-farm retention study, and examined compatible software that needed to be implemented at the auction market facility.

“We learned an entire system needs to be put together, from the farm to the sale barn and to the packer. It's critical to have a complete system in place,” Rickard explains.

Securing value

However, the system begins and ends with the effectiveness of the RFID technology. Glenn Fischer, Allflex senior vice president of sales and marketing, agrees on the need for minimum performance standards for the benefit of the entire beef industry chain.

“A baseline performance standard set by the demands of the marketplace would level the playing field, up the ante of competition for manufacturers, and synchronize a system at every stage in production,” Fischer says. For NAIS to truly be effective, he says there needs to be a direct value tipping point for cattlemen to incorporate RFID technology into their operations.

Fischer says a real problem rests in the diversity of products marketed to producers that don't meet accepted standards. As producers purchase various RFID equipment, the result is that several technologies filter through a single auction market facility, feedlot and processor.

“Consider this — if at a single point of production, cattle are marked with visual tags, brands and several electronic tags, there is no way for all of these systems to coexist in the marketplace. Dollars will be lost if an auction market can't validate the claims because their software can't recognize your tags,” Fischer says.

As a cattle producer, Ebersdorfer came to the same conclusion: “Because everyone uses so many different EID tags, I think it's going to be too big of a hassle for the packers. What's the point, if we can't identify our products from pasture to plate? What does the U.S. label really mean if we can't trace it back to the source?”

The conclusions from KSU's RFID studies certainly show that standardization will help technologies to function at every single point in beef production, creating value for everyone involved. Taking action towards that goal, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) met last month to discuss RFID technology and develop the minimum performance standard with KSU, USDA, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and individual manufacturers in attendance.

“It is our hope that once a solid set of standards has been developed by the taskforce, it will be utilized by RFID manufacturers to further the cause of consistent, reliable animal identification across North America and beyond,” Rickard says.

The initial standards will be available for discussion at the next meeting in Vancouver, Canada, with the goal of a final draft to be on the ballot in the summer of 2009.

Associated Figure

Amanda Nolz is Editor of BEEF Daily and BEEF Daily Blog (www.beefmagazine.com).