Even before electronic cattle ID has become the rule rather than the exception, plenty of ID equipment purchased by well-meaning producers has already been relegated to paperweight status. Like that exercise bike in the basement being used as a coat hanger long before you're in Olympic shape.

The reasons vary, but they typically revolve around frustration. The technology doesn't seem to work, doesn't work consistently, or just slows the process too much. Though the technology itself is usually blamed — rightfully so in some cases — the facilities and environment in which the technology is used can be the chief culprit.

“By far the biggest lesson learned has been that the success of the system is more dependent on the facility design than any tag, reader or combination thereof. If the facilities are designed properly, the technology works pretty well,” says Bryan Rickard, National Animal Identification System (NAIS) Program Director for the Kansas Department of Animal Health.

For instance, metal and vibrating metal interferes with the electronic signal of RFID devices, so Rickard and his associates learned to build and place the electronic reader a few inches apart from the alleyway, which reduces the problem exponentially (Figure 1). Likewise, they found if cattle can be single-file about 15 ft. before they get to the reader, read rate improves dramatically. Picture a 20-ft.-long alley; cattle are already single file for about 15 ft. before getting to the reader, which is housed along the next 4-5 ft., but located a few inches from the alley itself as part of a freestanding structure (Figure 2).

Incidentally, the main goal of the Kansas program is to educate producers in the state about NAIS. It's a job that became much tougher last fall when USDA dropped its implementation timeline and proclaimed the program voluntary.

“When USDA announced it was only a voluntary program, producers figured the program was dead and there wasn't any reason to bother with it,” Rickard says. So far, he says 13.7% of the livestock premises in the state are registered with NAIS.

So, 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.

“Livestock markets are the only segment of the marketplace that never has the animal in a confined state, like we do at the ranch, feedlot, stocker operation or harvest facility,” Rickard explains. “You have to capture the ID of the animal moving through the auction at the speed of commerce. It's critical that we accomplish that without slowing the sale.”

Technology is variable

Of course, RFID technology itself is fallible.

“There is incredible variation in the performance. It all boils down to matching readers with tags,” explains Dale Blasi, who heads up Kansas State University's (KSU) Center for Animal Identification.

In one recent study, Blasi and his colleagues evaluated the read range of 24 receivers (readers) and 60 transponders (RFID tags — see sidebar, “Basic RFID knowledge”). These were used in 30 different combinations. In other words, how far can the reading device (wand, panel reader, etc.) be away from the tag and still read it? U.S. Animal Identification Plan guidelines that preceded NAIS recommended a minimum read range of 24 in.

In the test, Blasi says the range in read distance across all 30 combinations was from a low of 14.75 in. to a high of 47.93 in. Of the 30 transponder/transceiver combinations, 23 met the minimum recommended 24-in. read distance. Keep in mind this was in a lab setting where a mechanical trolley presented the tag to the reader at varying distances.

Annette Bryant, a KSU research graduate assistant, worked with Blasi and Rickard on the study. In separate work last year, she compared the read range of eight different RFID tags, read by stationary ID readers from three different manufacturers. The average read range for those readers varied from 14 cm. on the low end to 30 cm. on the high end. Using seven different tag designs with the two best-reading transceivers, read rates between the two readers for the best orientation — the tag presented parallel to the reader — varied by as much as 16% for the same tag. Read rates between the two readers for the same tag varied by as much as 70% for the worst orientation — tags presented perpendicular to the reader.

KSU currently is engaged in a larger study for USDA. Due for completion early next year, it will chart the incidence and extent of electromagnetic interference, follow up on read range by orientation and manufacturer, evaluate causal factors for read-range variation (resonance frequency and voltage) and evaluate options for use in sale facilities.

“Some will say we need to have 100% read rate 100% of the time before RFID can be used in a system like NAIS. Given the incredible variation in read ranges, and the fact we're dealing with a live animal, I don't believe that's realistic,” Blasi says. “I'd argue that if an animal's ID is read multiple times through the course of its life, if the tag isn't read a particular time and location, the probability is it will be read at the other points and the chain of custody can still be pieced together.”

In other words, if the tag is read at the ranch, the sale barn, a stocker facility, feedlot and packinghouse, the odds are that, at most, the tag won't be read one time. But it will be read at the other four points, so you still have an identifiable trail.

Plus, Blasi points out the study results mentioned here are a snapshot in time. He explains, “Improvements in existing technologies are being made every day and new technologies are coming along all the time; it's a very fluid market… The question becomes whether something is better than nothing. If ID is going to be part of the industry system, it needs to bring value to the end equation.”

Simple, effective basics

Based only on the added management enabled by RFID, Rickard believes producers can use the technology to their advantage, even when it's not perfect. Never mind its potential use in NAIS. But he cautions producers to start slow.

“Start with the basics, start with the worksheet,” advises Rickard. He's referring to a starter kit of sorts that most tag manufacturers offer.

Say you've got 125 head to identify. They send you the electronic tags with worksheets that have the electronic ID numbers. There's space to record everything from visual ID, to calf sex and vaccinations, to birth date, etc. You either use the worksheets yourself, or for a fee, send them to a service provider you're working with and they input and house the data for you. So, you can have cattle electronically ID'd, even verified for process and age, yet you've never had to use an electronic reader yourself, or touch a computer.

“I've seen some producers who bought electronic readers go back to the worksheet method, recording the data by hand at chute side, then keying the data in back at their office because for them it was quicker and easier,” Rickard says. “We need to take baby steps before trying to run the marathon.”

Basic RFID knowledge

Transponder — This is the electronic ID (EID) tag itself, often serving as the female button attachment for a traditional visual ID tag. Transponders for radio-frequency ID (RFID) in the beef industry are passive responders. This means they possess no power source of their own. Instead, it's the charge provided by the transceiver (reader) that enables the transponder to emit a signal back to the transceiver.

The transponder contains an integrated electronic circuit (the chip) and a capacitor, which captures and uses energy from the transceiver in order to send a signal back. Electronic circuits in the transponder can be programmed as Read Only (R/O), referring to information contained in the chip.

Transceiver — Also known as the reader or the interrogator, transceivers send the electronic signal to the transponder that provides the power for the transponder to send the signal back to the transceiver with the information contained in the transponder's electronic circuit. Transceivers can be powered by batteries or plugged into a traditional power supply

The transceiver is either tethered (physically attached to the data accumulator such as laptop or scale head), or it transmits data to the accumulator wirelessly. Transceiver units are usually comprised of a transmitter/receiver, antennae, control unit, power unit, coupling element and an electronic interface enabling it to communicate with the data accumulator.

Transceiver antennae can be incorporated into handheld units (as in the case of reader wands used at chute side; see example at left), or within stationery units such as panel readers that are placed permanently to read tags as cattle flow by a certain physical location.