For years, we’ve heard about how much better the easily readable, fully writable ultra-high frequency (UHF) livestock RFID ear tags are compared to the current low-frequency industry standard. If you are asking, ‘If they are so great, where the heck are they?!,’ you’re not alone. Rumours abound that the technology is being held up due to politics, unfair corporate power, and Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) foot-dragging. The reality, say industry and UHF experts, is a whole lot less scandalous.
“The industry is saying, ‘Why can’t we have it yesterday?’ But developing workable new technology takes time. It’s just like anything else: it has to be tested and proven and the legislative bodies have to be satisfied,” says Fred Hays, policy analyst with Alberta Beef Producers. “People in the industry and in the research sector are really wanting to see these things get the go-ahead. From our perspective, it is just a matter of time.
“This is not about politics. I don’t know where that kind of thinking comes from. There are politics in a lot of things, but in this one, it’s really about allowing the necessary time for development of a product that is proven. Something that is going to assist the industry to help manage cattle, to better track them, to increase efficiencies, and impact the industry’s return on investment? Everyone is on side with that.”
Virtually everyone agrees that UHF technology offers huge potential. UHF tags are 2,000 times faster and easier to read than their low-frequency cousins used today and instantaneously update to a web or desktop data-management system. They can hold substantial amounts of read/writable data, which means health, medical and movement data can travel with the animal from birth to slaughter – a huge benefit from both a management and traceability standpoint. And, UHF technology already appears less expensive than its low-frequency cousin. Anitrace, a small subsidiary of systems integration company Hana Innosys, markets UHF tags for $2.50 per UHF and dangle combo tag and $1,000 per reader.
Currently, UHF tags are being used in countless industry applications. They are so small, effective and inexpensive that megastores like Walmart are now using them on every single item for inventory control and supply chain management. However, reading a tag on a box in a fairly climate-controlled environment is not the same as reading a tag on a moving, jostling, living animal in a wet, cold, and/or mucky environment. Currently, one issue for tag readability is tag interference. The readers can have trouble reading tag signals through flesh, which means that if a number of animals run by the reader at the same time and one or more of their heads are in the wrong place, a tag record could be missed. Also, a lost tag means losing the animal’s information. These issues are major concerns when 100 percent compliance is necessary to the ongoing success of the industry.
Producers frustrated with what they see as slowness in Canada’s uptake of UHF tags point to other jurisdictions where UHF tags are already being used in commercial livestock applications. Anitrace, for example, has already tagged more than four million cattle in Brazil and a million cattle in South Korea with its UHF tags. ‘If it works well enough to use in other places,’ Canadian producers say, ‘surely it must be good enough for Canada too?’
Not so, says Hays.
“Our beef industry relies on export markets. We have to satisfy our export customers that we can back our products. I have good confidence saying our present identification and traceability system is second-to-none. We need to make sure nothing happens that would make us lose that credibility,” he says.
“What we have right now is reliable and doing what we need for the time being. If we get into another BSE-type situation, we want to be absolutely certain that the system doesn’t have any glitches; that we are able to say with confidence that we can track all of the animals and know where they’ve been. We will shift to a UHF system, but not until the technology is ready. The technology is not yet quite ready to satisfy legislators yet. The Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA), in cooperation with the CFIA, is responsible for administering Canada’s national livestock-identification program. When the CCIA approves UHF tags, they will have to have very good confidence that they will work entirely and consistently. We see that as going through the proper process.”
Some suggest our heavily export-dependent industry may drag its heels on adopting UHF technology because it will not want to step out alone on UHF. Currently, low frequency RFID tags are the required standard in many beef-importing nations. As an industry-led organization, CCIA may be directed by industry to stay in step with trading partners.
Of course, the opposite could easily be argued as staying ahead of the curve can provide significant marketing edge, particularly when it comes to a politically sensitive topic such as traceability.
Four years ago, the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA) committed $950,000 towards a UHF ear-tag research-and-development project with Glen Kathler at SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary. These dollars, combined with additional support from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, and Livestock Identification Services (LIS), supported the development of a ‘first-generation’ tag prototype.
Now, Kathler is working on a newer and better version. Unlike the simple tags used in inventory-control applications, these tags are made with a UHF inlay inside injection-molded plastic, which creates a tag that is tough, durable and excellent for retention.
Kathler’s hope is to prove this second-generation concept, after which partners would hopefully convince manufacturers to produce them for industry applications.
How close is he to this goal?
“I am not sure how to measure ‘close,’” says Kathler. “Closer than we were, for sure. The next step is to develop a tag-numbering protocol for UHF in animal recording. Then that can be submitted to ISO for standardization. That will then allow UHF to be submitted for CCIA/CFIA approval.”
Why is SAIT working on developing a tag if companies like Anitrace are already at the marketing stage? Whereas Anitrace has developed a tag for on-farm herd management, SAIT is working towards a full system that could be implemented industry wide.
“Their primary goal is the tag, ours is the technology for an entire system that can not only provide herd management but complete traceability in animal movement as well,” Kathler explains. It is work that is vital to the industry, he believes.
“We feel that there are opportunities for technology to benefit the beef industry and UHF-RFID is one of them. It may well be that the next iteration of electronic identification is something further ahead than UHF, but the work being done with UHF-RFID is fundamental: first, to understand the industry and second, to develop technologies that work. Our primary goal is always to prove the technology. If the technology works, there will be manufacturers who can build tags that work.”
Hays suggests producers be patient.
“UHF technology is coming. But just like developing any other technology, it takes time and there will always be some hiccups along the way. Once the technology is proven, it’ll be accepted and we’ll move on,” he says.
And, he points out, there is nothing stopping Canadian producers from using UHF technology in their on-farm management systems, so long as the present legislated low-frequency tag is also on each animal.
“If someone wants to use the technology now, there is nothing holding them back except the additional cost,” says Hays.