A game of tag — which RFID system is better?

AniTrace ear tag_opt.jpegThe race is on to create an approved and industry-implementable version of ultra-high-frequency (UHF) radio frequency identification (RFID) livestock ear tags. Though there could be big money in it for the winner, design challenges and political roadblocks stand in the way.

Compared to older technology, UHF is 2,000 times faster and easier to read, can hold more data, is more compatible with data-management systems and is likely to be cheaper.

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AniTrace is first out of the gate with a technology based on UHF developed for vehicle fleet tracking. At a demonstration in High River in February, its tag proved readable 100 per cent of the time by a fixed reader regardless of animal bunching, speed of movement or tag orientation, and 100 per cent readable by a hand-held so long as tags were oriented correctly and not blocked by other animals.

The tag also offers two forms of read/writable memory, and the ability to link with existing management software. At just $2.50 per UHF and dangle combo tag and $1,000 per reader, the tag system is significantly cheaper than a low-frequency version.

AniTrace says it has tagged four million cattle in Brazil and a million cattle in South Korea.

At Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), a research team has spent more than two years working through multiple UHF prototypes. Unlike the privately funded AniTrace, SAIT’s work is being funded through a $1-million grant from the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA).

Ben Reed, the SAIT project’s support specialist, says AniTrace has been quick to market, but may face some challenges.

“AniTrace’s physical design is fairly rudimentary compared to SAIT’s. We took a different path, using a UHF inlay inside injection-moulded plastic, mostly because of our initial mandate of needing extremely high retention rates. We couldn’t see that happening with a simpler design,” Reed said.

“There’s not any competition between us and SAIT,” says Chuck Cosgrove, AniTrace’s director of sales and marketing. “What we have in many respects, they are duplicating. That’s not a criticism — their work is very different than what we’re doing in that they have been given x number of months and x dollars to spend to come up with a prototype.”

CCIA approval

Regardless of who creates the best design, the biggest challenge is still ahead — approval of the tags for use by the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA).

Paul Laronde, a member of the CCIA’s Technical Advisory Committee, says the agency is dedicated to advancing traceability through new technology. That said, he says UHF technology is unlikely to be approved any time soon. First is the issue of retention. He says UHF needs larger antenna wires, so that the tags must be larger. “This increased size and rigidity impacts ear tag retention negatively,” Laronde says.

SAIT’s Reed disagrees. “Retention has to do with physical design. We’re determining there are many ways to embed UHF inlays into tags,” he says.

Cosgrove says AniTrace has addressed the concern and that low-frequency tags are no less susceptible to losses.

“Our excellent retention rates in challenging actual operating conditions have proven our claims.”

Second, Laronde says UHF technology will cost producers more, especially if it is not backwards compatible and make existing equipment such as readers, tags and scanners redundant.

“Producers, industry and governments have significant investments in current technology; therefore, the impact analysis is critical to understand before accepting or rejecting any new technology,” Laronde says.

Current LF problems

AniTrace readers can already successfully scan both LF and UHF tags. Further, both Reed and Cosgrove believe a cost/benefit analysis will favour the UHF technology.

“We constantly hear people in the beef industry complaining about the limitations and problems with low-frequency tags,” says Cosgrove. “We attend meetings where we just wish we could say ‘please, look at this solution. It addresses all your concerns from tags to readers to sharing the data and does it right now.’”

Finally, Laronde points out that our heavily export-dependent industry needs to keep from stepping out alone on UHF.

“As most industry participants would agree, it is important for Canadian Cattle Identification Agency to keep pace with our international trading partners. The current ISO 11784/85 low-frequency RFID standard is in place in a number of other jurisdictions globally. As an industry-led organization, CCIA would most likely be directed by industry to stay in step with our trading partners.”

Cosgrove counters that improved technology will give Canada an edge in proving traceability.

“Canada is the only country that we know of that is fighting the UHF standard. It amazes us to see how many smaller countries, places that many Canadians may think of as Third World, are way ahead of us. It’s also interesting to note that many large beef producers like Brazil and the U.S. (which tested retention extensively) have already approved our tag for use in their countries as official tags.

“We are more likely to be isolated from the world by our determined stance against this technology than embraced as a leader,” says Cosgrove.

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