IMAGINE WHAT would happen if each animal on your farm had its own identification number. Identity theft would be nearly impossible because each animal would be electronically identified, either by a bar-coded, electronically readable ear tag or a microchip implanted in the animal's body, or maybe both. What if that microchip alerted you at once to any changes in the animal's body temperature or body chemistry? If the chip detected the first symptoms of disease, perhaps the animal's ear tag would light up.

You could verify the animal's identity further by doing a quick retinal scan or taking a cow's nose print and referring to a Web database. If you still weren't sure of the identity, you could run a quick DNA test.

If you wanted to know the location of your animals, you could sit in front of your personal computer and watch GPS technology pinpoint them in real time on a satellite map of your property, identifying each animal specifically as you rolled your mouse over the screen.

All of these “what ifs” are possible right now, but they aren't necessarily all at the practical and affordable stage for day-to-day U.S. agricultural production. “Because we are in this development phase in an effort to offer commercially viable systems, and because [electronic identification] is a relatively new technology to the livestock industry, we are still having to do field customization work,” says Niels Fogt, director of sales and marketing for Digital Angel Corporation, South St. Paul, MN. “A lot of these products are not at the point of ‘plug and play.’ We are all striving to make these systems more user friendly and more cost-effective. In some ways it is still applied research.”

Radio frequency ID

The National Animal Identification System's (NAIS) Cattle Working Group is currently leaning toward radio frequency identification (RFID) technology via ear tags as the recommended method of identifying cattle. “ISO 11784- and 11785-compliant technology was identified as the standard we want to start the program with,” says Gary Wilson, NAIS Cattle Working Group co-chair and an Ohio beef producer. “We recognize we have some performance issues with that technology, but we also know many of those issues can be overcome.”

RFID makes sense as a practical means of animal identification, considering NAIS's goal of being able to trace an infected animal's path throughout the country within 48 hours, says Dale Blasi, a Kansas State University animal scientist. Many of the major packers have low-frequency readers installed in their plants now. “You have a handful of companies marketing a low-frequency tag at 134.2 kHz,” Blasi explains. “Then you have a very small handful of companies moving forward with an ultrahigh-frequency [UHF] tag running at 915 MHz.”

There are several varieties of RFID tag readers on the market. Some are handheld, battery-operated, wireless readers that look like a cricket bat. Many readers are capable of communicating either to a laptop computer or a handheld PDA. Larger, sophisticated reading units are available to read tags as animals walk through a special chute or walk past a reading panel attached to a fence or chute. Some technology groups have worked with affixing scanning systems to livestock trucks so animals can be recorded at the point of transport.

Blasi says there are advantages and disadvantages at all radio frequencies. The bottom line is read distance. “Read distance is the golden grail in this market,” he says.

Fogt of Digital Angel Corporation says age- and source-verified programs are driving the RFID market today. Stu Marsh, Farnam Livestock Tracking Systems, Phoenix, AZ, provides further clarification: “RFID tags are meant to take hands off the system, not add hands to the system. Are electronics going to do more for you than if you don't use the technology? Are you currently identifying animals as individuals today? If you are not, you probably don't need RFID.”

Story meat

When some Japanese consumers walk into the grocery store, they can use a bar-code-reading feature on their cell phones to learn more about the food they are thinking about buying. By pointing a picture-taking cell phone at a bar code on a package of meat, for example, the shopper can bring up information about where and how that exact meat animal in that package was raised. In some cases, a photo of the farmer even appears on the phone's screen. As U.S. Meat Export Federation's Paul Clayton explained at a recent animal identification meeting, in some countries there is a big demand for information about the product in the store. This process- and source-verified “story meat” lets consumers know that someone is standing behind the product.

ScoringAg, the agricultural division of ScoringSystem, Sarasota, FL, has worked with customers in other countries to implement the “story meat” system. ScoringAg offers a process that enables livestock producers and packers to print bar codes to identify a particular animal all the way from the farm, through the slaughter process and on to the grocery store. Now the company is conducting other pilot projects and working to bring the technology to the U.S.

“Owners of any agricultural product from shrimp to cows can enter secure records into our database and produce bar codes for premise identification, for example,” explains Robert Crews, sales support specialist for ScoringAg. “Producers can enter birth records, track animal movement and enter any other information about the animal on a Web-based site. The bar code also contains GPS coordinates from the premise of origin.” Producers can then print bar codes from the site for labeling purposes. Certain types of cell phones can read the bar codes.

Active tags

The Cattle Traq division of the American Biomedical Group, Oklahoma City, OK, took an application that was already existing in both the military and public health sectors and crossed it over to the animal side. “We can track an animal's location within 1-ft. accuracy through metal buildings, metal fences, or from the inside of a metal tractor trailer,” explains Jim Burgess, Cattle Traq president. “The technology was developed to track military shipping containers inside the hold of a U.S. Navy ship.” The tracking system works with a series of antennas and high-frequency electronic ear and bolus tags. The battery-powered tags transmit information at one-billionth of a second, with an expected battery life of four to five years on the animal. The antennas pick up the signal from the tags and calculate the location of the signal, transmitting the information back to a computer. The transmission distance is two-thirds mile between antennas, becoming what Burgess refers to as a “geofence.”

Burgess uses a series of antennas strategically positioned to monitor his entire ranch. Gridded aerial photo maps stored on the Cattle Traq server monitor the cattle, which are fitted with ultrahigh-frequency tags. He can zoom in or out on a particular animal, or zoom out for a view of all the animals located on a 640-acre section. Animals appear as icons on the screen. By touching the screen, he can see which animal is in a particular area and can read its individual identification number, in addition to seeing the animal's medical history and other data specific to that animal.

The system can be used for security, too. Handheld units are available to read tags outside of the geofence.

Cattle Traq also offers an electronic bolus that transmits biometric information. The bolus measures ¾ × 2½ in. and weighs 4 to 6 oz. It can be given to a cow similarly to how some medications are delivered in bolus form down the animal's throat. The device's weight keeps it in the animal's rumen. The bolus communicates electronically with a receiver and/or the animal's ear tag, which in turn retransmits information to a reader antenna. The bolus and ear tag have a coordinating 15-digit identification number specific to that animal.

Various configurations are available that allow the bolus to record and transmit the animal's core body temperature, pH or internal gas pressure. An alarm will sound if the animal is acidotic or suffering from bloat. Many cattle diseases are accompanied by a change in internal temperature, pH and pressure, Burgess explains. If an animal is sick, the appropriate data are transmitted to alert the producer's computer — or even light up the ear tag on the sick animal for quick sorting and doctoring.

The bolus/ear-tag combination also alerts producers by cell phone or computer when an animal is either stolen or gets out. “When the ear tag/bolus passes the geofence, or when the ear tag is cut off, alarms are programmed to communicate to the proper authorities such as the producer or sheriff,” Burgess says. The ultrahigh-frequency tracking system has a read rate of 500 animals per second. Burgess says the system can read 100% of the tagged cattle as they are transported past a reader, while loaded on a tractor trailer rolling down the highway.

Burgess notes much of the technology is already in use in hospitals and by the military. Cattle Traq's team of biomedical engineers has worked to make the agricultural disease state management and tracking technology affordable for agricultural uses. Studies are currently under way using the technology at several universities, livestock marketing association, dairies and feedlots throughout the U.S.

Biometrics

Retinal scanning involves identification of an animal based on a unique pattern of blood vessels at the back of the animal's eye. This process falls within a category known as “biometrics.”

Biometrics also includes measuring nose prints or DNA as a unique method of animal identification. Optibrand, Fort Collins, CO, offers a Universal Data Collection System to identify animals via retinal scans. The OptiReader device is a combination handheld computer and digital video camera. It captures and stores an image of an animal's retinal vascular pattern in as little as 15 seconds while the animal is restrained in a squeeze chute or calf cradle. A GPS receiver within the device determines the latitude and longitude, along with a time and date stamp, for each record. RFID or bar-code readers can be connected wirelessly or through a USB port on the OptiReader. The OptiReader can take digital photographs of ear tags and link them to the tag number, retinal image and GPS stamp. Optibrand software is available to help manage data, too.

Marketplace to determine technology

Although the rapid pace of animal identification technology is being fueled in large part by the NAIS, it is a bit misleading to associate the technology too closely with the proposed NAIS requirements. USDA remains “technology neutral,” meaning it is not endorsing or mandating any specific technology for animal identification. “USDA has provided the template for the National Animal Identification System and is letting the marketplace determine the technology that emerges from that,” explains Blasi of Kansas State University. “It could be low frequency, high frequency or biometrics, such as retinal scanning or DNA.” There are a variety of companies working on research and development of animal identification products. The possibilities are changing on nearly a daily basis.

Almost every expert in the animal identification field reiterates a crucial point about any technology that may be adopted: The final choice must be driven by economics and its impact on the speed of commerce. Auction marketers cannot afford to spend a lot of time getting within inches of an animal to read an electronic tag or device when hundreds of animals are passing quickly through a system. Packing plants need sensible, useable solutions for their identification and reporting requirements. And producers will not readily adopt a technology that requires drastic changes, high costs or time delays when handling animals.