It's a toss-up. Even those who have already made substantial long-term investment in radio-frequency identification (RFID) for cattle, along with attendant electronic data capture, are torn as to whether cost or frustration is the key reason the industry has been so slow to adopt a technology that offers so much potential.

Cost is an obvious contender. Whether it's 50¢/head or $2 or more, most producers are reluctant to spend more money without some assurance they can at least break even on the added outlay. Even if cattle producers are ultimately forced into it through a mandated national ID system, most will do so grudgingly unless they see an economic incentive (see “Bigger is Cheaper,” p. 22).

RFID is supposed to automate the process of collecting data and make the process more accurate. But, try telling that to a feedlot processing crew with 400 animals to go that's already jiggled every plug and joggled every dial and can't get that thing to work, or do so consistently.

Likewise, try convincing a cow-calf producer about the joys of early adoption after the RFID carcass data he was counting on, disappears. Or, the guy who changes systems only to find there's no way to incorporate the information gathered from the previous system without re-inputting years of data.

The Basic Components of RFID

An RFID system consists primarily of the tag (or transponder) itself, which houses a unique ID number and potentially other data; and the transceiver (or reader) that provides power to the tag so that the tag can send information to the reader. Once it receives the data, the reader then sends this information on to the data accumulator (think in terms of laptop, handheld, etc.). Then all of this information is interpreted and sorted out by the software involved (see “Basic Components,” p. 14).

Though still relatively new to the cattle business, RFID technology has been around a long time. Even in the cattle business, where the environment is conducive to knocks and bumps, RFID technology can take a lot of punishment. Unfortunately, in too many cases, users report that without at least some retrofitting of hardware or add-on software and tinkering, trying to make otherwise sturdy, functioning components from one manufacturer work with those of another is akin to welding steel with a glass rod.

Certainly, utilizing only components — an entire RFID system — from a single manufacturer may be a solution within a specific operation, or even within a specific industry segment. Where you deal with lots of cattle coming from lots of sources, though, that isn't practical. Plus, many producers prefer more price competition on the input side rather than less. Never mind the fact that components from one manufacturer — a tag, for instance — have proven in some conditions to actually work better with another's company's reader than its own.

The crux is that a growing number of producers are trying to feel their way through the task of implementing RFID systems. Some have already proven to themselves and the industry that the cost of these systems can be paltry compared to the returns yielded by management decisions enabled by such systems.

Moreover, odds are government and/or market mandates will force all producers in the RFID direction. So, the safe bet today is getting your arms wrapped around what the technology can and can't do.

Start At The Beginning

First of all, RFID is one form of individual animal ID. Other individual ID methods include everything from tattoos to traditional dangle tags and electronic identification (EID). The latter includes technologies such as retinal imaging and barcode scanning.

This article deals exclusively with RFID ear tags; RFID is also used in other cattle-based mediums such as ruminal boluses.

Second, RFID alone is neither a record keeping system, nor a business management tool. It's simply a mechanism for identifying cattle. When tied to a reader, RFID allows for quicker, more accurate collection of data. In this case, the data consists of at least a unique animal ID number, but may include other information such as weight and date if the system runs through a scale-head, or health treatment and GPS location if an electronic smart-syringe is also tied to the system.

“All RFID does is help you get on the highway more quickly,” says Dale Blasi, an animal science professor at Kansas State University (KSU) who has long been at the forefront of helping producers in his state understand and utilize new identification technologies. “It merely allows you to collect data faster and with more accuracy,” he adds.

For perspective, Blasi explains, “In other industries that utilize human data entry, a transposition error every 300 keystrokes is common. Besides the time involved, in manually collecting and inputting cattle data, there's a chance for human error, both in collecting the data chute-side, then again when transcribing that information to a permanent record.”

RFID systems and their components are fairly easy to understand.

There are four basic components:

  • the transponder (the tag), which is either a “donut” button or encompassed within a traditional dangle tag,

  • the reader (transceiver),

  • a data accumulator (the device where the information flows) and

  • the software, which transforms the data into useful and recognizable information.

In addition, international standards exist for the standardization of key components, namely the transponders and transceivers (see “Explaining ISO,” p. 16). The rub comes with the fact that these common standards allow for different protocols, and that the software driving the standards is proprietary. Consequently, mixing and matching different components from different systems by design or necessity is not always possible or easy.

A Game Of Inches

For instance, the electronic tags (transponders) themselves can comply with international standards but operate based on one of two protocols: half-duplex and full-duplex. Both are low frequency transponders. Both are passive in that they possess no power source of their own. Instead, they are charged by the signal emitted from the reader.

Half-duplex tags work something like the walkie-talkie you had as a kid: it's one-way communication, one at a time. The reader emits its signal, the half-duplex tag becomes charged, then it sends its signal — the information it contains — back to the reader.

Meanwhile, with the full-duplex protocol, communication is two-way and simultaneous. As soon as the full-duplex tag detects the signal from the reader, it begins sending information back to the reader.

Full-duplex proponents say these tags are read more quickly and there's more opportunity for them to be read because of the constant two-way signal. Conversely, half-duplex believers counter that their protocol succumbs less to environmental influences under certain conditions.

While readers that aren't ISO 11785-compliant may have problems reading both half-duplex and full-duplex tags, ISO 11785-approved readers should be capable of reading both transmission protocols. In fact, ISO compliance requires this.

However, Blasi believes the compromise solution takes some of the speed away from what could be had with full-duplex alone, and some of the range that could be had if the reader was geared solely to either protocol. Sounds like the result of a perfect committee meeting.

In either case, Blasi emphasizes, “RFID in the cattle business is a game of inches. To use it, you have to get up close and personal with the cattle.”

That's because, unlike the numbers on a dangle tag that can be seen across the pen or pasture, to read an RFID tag, the reader literally must be within a few inches of the tag. In fact, among the RFID tag manufacturers responding to the BEEF RFID Survey conducted by KSU (See “BEEF RFID Survey,” p. 10), the effective read range is approximately 2-12 in. Across those same respondents, the cost of a transponder, usually offered in conjunction with a visual dangle tag runs $2-4.50.

“Read range is a function of radio frequency, antenna areas and power consumption from the data carrier,” Blasi says. Besides the half-duplex, full-duplex protocol of the tag, the reader, its power and design can impact range.

As a rule of thumb, Blasi says battery-operated readers have less read-range than those powered by 110 volts. Incidentally, you can find readers that are tethered — physically hooked to the data accumulator — and those that are wireless.

Like transponders, there's an international standard for transceivers. However, the same rules and constraints described for tags apply here. Just because a reader complies with the standard doesn't mean it will work seamlessly with the tags and software provided by other companies. In the BEEF RFID Survey, handheld readers range from $150-1,700. Stationery readers in the survey are listed from $1,500-6,500.

Next, data accumulators can be any type of handheld, laptop or desktop computer. But, Blasi cautions folks to make sure the chosen device has the horsepower and minimum operating system specified by manufacturers for use with its readers and software. It's not surprising to find sweeping variation.

For one thing, installation alone runs from $0-1,500 in the BEEF RFID Survey. Some charge for customer support, some don't.

More important to users, though, each is different in terms of user friendliness, compatibility with off-the-shelf business software and the types of reports generated for users. While it's the end result of the RFID process, it should be among the first things considered by potential users, Blasi says.

Finally, just the fact that there are so many companies offering RFID components in the beef industry — 25 in the survey — can cause confusion. Never mind the fact that of these 25 companies, only one manufactures its own tags and its own readers, in addition to providing its own software and data storage and management service. All the rest offer potential clients some combination of these products and services.

Where To Begin

With that in mind, Blasi suggests, “Determine what you want an RFID system to accomplish for your operation. That will determine which components you need to be concerned with.”

Blasi says that if all you care about is having a tag in the calf's ear to comply with a market mandate or government regulation, then the only RFID component you need is the transponder (tag). But make sure all the components are ISO 11784 and ISO 11785 compliant.

Before purchasing any component or system, Blasi encourages producers to make sure they understand how well it works with components from other manufacturers. If you're considering a reader from company A, which also manufactures transponders, ask for a demonstration on how well it works with transponders from companies B, C and D, too.

Depending on how many cows, stockers, etc., you can dilute the hardware cost over, Blasi points out there's a growing cottage industry of third-party service providers who own the necessary hardware and software, then charge producers a fee to read their RFID tags and maintain their data. And, some vertically coordinated systems offer participants the added advantage of volume purchase of RFID components.

Most important, understand there is no foolproof RFID system. Where technology is concerned, failure occurs.