In livestock production, most ranchers keep track of "who's who" with the help of visual tags. These tags are placed in the cartilage of the animal's ear, much like an earring. The number on the tag, and sometimes other details such as the tag's color or placement, provides the rancher with information about that animal with a single glance. Each animal has a unique number, featured on the tag, that links that animal to its production and health records. For example, a rancher would use these numbers to record when a cow gave birth (and which calves were hers), when an animal was given a vaccine, or to record weight gains of growing calves.
Visual tags will always be the most widely adopted form of animal identification, but that does not mean they have not been infused with modern technology. Electronic identification (EID) tags have been commercially available for many years and are making data collection and animal ID as simple as scanning a barcode.
EID tags allocate a unique number to the animal that can be read by a digital scanner. These tags (or buttons) are placed in an animal's ear in the same way as conventional visual tags. Using digital readers, a computer program recognizes the encrypted number, electronically recording which cow was scanned and any production or processing data a producer wishes to catalog.
The primary value of this technology is the collection and transfer of information (i.e., animal health records), especially when those animals change ownership or move to the next phase in the beef production system. In addition, many other innovations rely on the use of EID technology, such as GrowSafe Systems, Ltd., a company the Noble Research Institute collaborates with to identify individual animal performance to assess efficiency and predict illness.
At the Noble Research Institute, all cattle carry both an EID and a visual tag. Embedded in each animal's visual tag is another form of electronic identification that relies on UHF (ultrahigh frequency) technology. It acts similarly to the EID tag but has a vastly superior read-range and can be housed in much smaller applications. This form of digital identification allows for larger groups of animals to be scanned at greater distances and higher speeds compared to the low frequency of the EID tag.
The utilization of UHF technology is in its infancy in the agriculture sector, but I am excited about what the future may hold. Soon, ranchers may be able to fly drones to check their cattle, scanning the herd to get an accurate inventory, all without leaving their home or office.
Austin Miles assists with research projects involving beef cattle at the Noble Research Institute. He specializes in data management and analysis, animal stockmanship, and identification and implementation of innovative technologies relevant to beef production and animal husbandry. Miles manages a cow-calf herd with his wife and family on the farm he grew up on in Texas. Follow him on Instagram @austinmiles2010 for a look at life on Noble research and demonstration farms and ranches.