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Tennessee Tech makes headway on active RFID eartag technology

Danielle Schlegel for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 October 2017
The masterminds at Tennessee Tech

What was once a far-off dream might become a reality sooner rather than later thanks to numerous groups embarking on improvements with RFID eartag technology in beef cattle.

Of these intellectuals, Clyde Bagley with Tennessee Tech University, has been working feverishly alongside his peers the past few years on RFID improvements after 28 cattle were stolen from the university’s Oakley Sustainable Agriculture Center in 2015.

“At the time, RFID technology was only effective to about 30 to 40 inches away; it quickly came clear such technology was so limited it would not be useful,” Bagley summarizes. “There are many possibilities afforded to better cattle management simply by knowing where cows are located.”

Initially, the team worked toward an eartag that was more “active” and could track cattle over farther distances without the reader being within 30 inches from the ear in hopes of being able to locate missing cattle. Along the way, this “active” eartag has evolved to embody multiple management applications, Bagley says.

“While constrained by a confidentiality agreement, it appears the active tag is a (commercial) possibility within the next three years,” Bagley says. “The active tag, with its own power source, has been lab-tested to be effective in direct line of sight for 3 miles and possibly more.

The hindering issue is ‘direct line of sight,’ with interference from mountains, trees, transmission lines, etc. However, adding simple drone technology to the system may correct all these insufficiencies currently in these systems.”

This headway has come as a result of interdisciplinary efforts among departments within the university including the department of manufacturing and engineering technology, school of agriculture, department of computer science, Center for Manufacturing Research and the Oakley Sustainable Agriculture Center.

Because only a handful of the cattle were located and recovered, the team quickly realized this problem could serve as an opportunity for not only the Oakley Sustainable Agriculture Center but also the entire beef industry.

Affordable and functional

The project abstract summary cites that “the main objective of this project is to develop a system that collects data on livestock and determine the means to manufacture the system” as a response to “a dire need to be able to track the location of animals for a variety of reasons such as theft concerns, medical care and collecting useful data to be used for future animal research in animal science.”

The team’s first obstacle to overcome was the cost associated with RFID technologies at its present state.

“Currently, the hold-up in this technology is price,” Bagley says. “For about $200 per head, we can do a good job of tracking cattle. But if the average cow generates a ‘profit’ of $100 per year, I have just spent two years’ profits on simply knowing where my cow is.

So our focus tends to be on creating a system that costs $20 or less, inexpensive enough to where large groups of producers will use it. To be economical, the system must pay for itself.”

Currently, the tag Bagley and his team have developed utilizes solar energy to charge the base unit that collects data via a wireless network from the tags. This battery bank can run for five days before needing to be recharged.

Nutrition and health

The team is still refining its system from its initial phase: a tracker affixed to a mineral supplement that reads the eartag of each animal consuming the mineral, records duration spent and then relays that information back to home base.

While this has its limitations, this RFID application does allow for the producer to surmise a rough head count of animals within close proximity of the mineral tub if the animals are consuming. It is also outfitted with an insecticide applicator.

“We are fitting our mineral feeder with optics that can be remote-controlled. This will allow for herd surveillance upon demand but routinely will focus on cattle coming into the mineral feeder for mineral consumption,” Bagley says. “Once inside the feeder, the current RFID reader knows what animal is feeding, transfers that information to the hub/‘mother ship,’ and a couple of things can take place.

If fitted with a load cell, we know exactly how much mineral is consumed. Once the cow is in the mineral feeder, the system knows who she is and can determine when she was last sprayed for horn fly control.

“Every 18 to 24 days, she will be sprayed with the camera adjusting the spray nozzle in case the cow is standing sideways rather than directly centered. The system is also tied into weather reporting, so if it is raining, or the wind threshold too high, we will skip spraying that day.

And provided the optics and nozzles work efficiently, when we get ready for pour-on dewormers and other procedures, the nozzle will spray insecticide, dewormer, de-lice and so forth.”

They are working to track creep-feeder activity by calves and real-time breeding activity tracking down to the specific bull mating with a specific female at the Oakley Sustainable Agriculture Center.

Bound by the constraints of patent law, Bagley cannot yet disclose the full details of further improvements to the active RFID system the team has developed; however, it seems promising that the industry will know within a few years time.

An eye beyond the ranch

“Skipping forward, with active eartags, an alert could be sent out to all weigh stations, with stolen cattle numbers, and when those cattle pass a weigh station, an alert is sent out,” Bagley says. “Cattle stay with the herd when healthy; when sick, or when calving, cows leave the herd. And we can already establish electronic boundaries so if a cow or calf are not in their correct location, an alert can be sent out including the position of the animal.

“Coupling drone technology with cattle location and movement also allows predications of problems: When cattle are bothered with horn flies, they move more. When cattle are chased by varmints, they move more; any of these could alert the systems to management issues.

And because location is embedded in the technology, we not only know a cow is running, we know where she is so we can correct the problem. In a feedlot and with location, we can estimate time at feeding station. Steers becoming sick reduces feed intake, and since they are not coming to feed, we know before the steer knows that he is not feeling properly.”

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and active RFID eartags have been embraced by various entities to refine in such a way these tags can be widely used and are affordable to do so. Bagley is optimistic the information not only his team has gathered but also everyone else working to expand such technologies is only the tip of the iceberg.

“Computer technology has come so far as to what it can learn. We will take in lots of data, and it is impossible to determine what we will find out.

Likely, we will be able to predict performance variables: how long a calf spends nursing; how fast/slow his movements and how that relates to disposition and gains/carcass grades, etc. There [has been and] will be many unintended findings,” Bagley says. “Many other functional management tools will be discovered once we have the ability to track cattle movement closely.”  end mark

PHOTO: he masterminds behind this project at Tennessee Tech have been dedicated to finding a solution to a problem for not only their university’s animals but also for the entire beef industry. Photo provided by Dr. Clyde Bagley.

Danielle Schlegel is a freelance writer based in Whitewood, South Dakota.