Radio frequency identification tags provide diverse options for cattle producers
With USDA’s animal disease traceability rule in full swing and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service now promising to provide enforcement on the rule, producers have begun to question what the best option to identify cattle is, particularly when it come to newer technology, like radio frequency identification (RFID) tags.
“RFID tags can be classified in three ways – low frequency, high frequency and ultra-high frequency,” explains Wyoming Assistant State Veterinarian Thach Winslow. “In livestock, the major types being used are low frequency (LF) and ultra-high frequency (UHF) tags.”
While Winslow notes the high frequency tags are not being used at all for cattle commercially.
Also, UHF tags can be purchased in the U.S. through limited channels, but they are not easily found over the counter of online. They are being used extensively in South America.
“In the U.S. right now, the majority of RFID tags are low frequency,” Winslow adds.
“Some countries in South America are using the UHF tags extensively,” Winslow says. “They were behind us in technology, but when they jumped, they jumped ahead of us.”
Two companies – Anitrace and MicroTraks – currently market UHF tags on the largest scale, but most major ear tag companies are working on developing UHF tags.
Accuracy in reading
With the new ADT rule, Winslow notes that accuracy of tag numbers is increasingly important.
“As we think about having to read each metal tag to identify cattle, we have to put them in a head catch,” he says. “To read an RFID tag, we can put them in a head gate or a chute, and we don’t even have to catch everyone’s head.”
After being caught, a reader captures the tag number.
Additionally, the RFID readers accurately record tag numbers each time.
“The latest data I heard shows that by the time a tag was read and recorded on a piece of paper, 30 percent of them are wrong,” says Winslow. “Some charts come in up to 80 percent wrong.”
When considering using either LF or UHF tags, Winslow comments that there are some differences to be considered.
The LF tags are typically in the form of a small, round button tag, but they can also be combined with a dangle tag, as well.
Additionally, LF tags can be placed closer to the head on a cow’s ear, increasing retention.
“The UHF tag requires a bigger antenna, so it is a small dangle tag,” he explains. “In some ways, that is a disadvantage, because it can crowd the ear.”
With a LF RFID tag, readers can be no farther than 18 inches away from the tag, but UHF tags can be read from 12 to 15 feet away.
“If we have to bleed the cattle, we have them in the chute anyway, so a LF tag works well,” Winslow says. “If we have 80 head and we just need to write a health certificate, we can send them down a 10-foot alley and capture all the animals with a UHF tag.”
However, UHF tag readers can be “dialed down” to read at a closer range if a producer wants to look at only a small group of cattle. As a result, single reads, as well as group reads, can be done utilizing UHF tags.
“The UHF tags open a whole set of opportunities,” Winslow says.
When looking at RFID tags, Winslow also notes that tags range between 25 and 50 cents more expensive than a traditional tag.
“However, the companies say that RFID tags will end up being much cheaper in the future,” he says. “Companies making these tags say that a UHF tag may only cost 10 cents more than a regular dangle tag in a few years.”
Readers also must be considered when looking at the cost of tags, and Winslow says they currently cost about $1,200. Projections show that readers will also decrease in cost in the future.
New technology also allows for information to be shared more quickly utilizing RFID tags.
“Those companies making the readers are also looking at use of a smart phone to capture information, so the data can be put directly into a health certificate or test chart,” Winslow says. “Right now, the apps for our smartphones aren’t very good, but they are working on them.”
With the ability to download information directly to a smartphone, data can be sent back to an office or to the house, where it can be immediately be inputted into charts, rather than waiting until the end of a long day.
“There are great opportunities out there with these RFID tags,” Winslow says. “The technology already exists to pair a regular reader with a smartphone. Apps need improvement, but companies are moving in that direction.”
Future of RFID tags
As technology continues to progress, Winslow says that some companies are working on systems that can be LF or UHF.
“If a producer gets started with a LF tag, they won’t want to switch to UHF because they’ve got the cost of the tags already in the cattle, as well as the reader,” says Winslow. “However, if we can offer a tag that does both, when the producer moves to upgrade their reader, the tags are already there and UHF capable.”
“A combination tag would be a great transition for the industry,” he adds. “There are companies working on both combination tags and readers.”
At the end of the day, there are a number of options for producers when it comes to selecting and using RFID tags.
Wyoming Assistant State Veterinarian Thach Winslow notes that it is important for producers to understand that Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags are not GPS devices that identify where cattle are located.
“RFID tags don’t broadcast on a continual basis,” he explains. “The only actual location we get is the one where we are reading the tags.”
“There has been a fear that, by putting in tags, our cattle would be tracked by satellites,” Winslow continues. “The only differences between low frequency RFID tags and metal clip tags are that, instead of being nine digits, they are 15 digits, and instead of reading it with our eyes, we use a reader from about 18 inches away.”