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Researchers Study Factors Degrading Cattle-Tag Performance

Academics at Kansas State University will work with Tyson and other meat processors to understand better the environmental variables affecting RFID technology for beef-tracking.
By Claire Swedberg
Jul 12, 2006Researchers at Kansas State University (KSU) are evaluating the effects of environmental variability on RFID technology for cattle-tracking. The goal is to assist meat producers in understanding how environmental factors affect RFID tag reads, as well as to help train KSU students in researching skills. The researchers will also read tags at meat-processing plants operated by Cargill Meat Solutions, National Beef and Tyson Foods. Ultimately, the study could help these companies better identify the cattle used in the manufacturing of the food products they sell to grocery stores and other food retailers. This has the potential to make any product recall more efficient should they later discover the meat to have an animal that might possibly be diseased.

KSU began the one-year study in May 2006 with $441,430 funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The university also received $30,000 from the Kansas Department of Commerce.

The focus of the study is to determine what environmental factors compromise RFID technology, explains Dale Blasi, a KSU professor and extension beef specialist, and how different brands of hardware function in different environments.

The project goals include characterizing environmental interference affecting the operation of low-frequency 134.2 kHz RFID tags and readers compliant with the ISO 11785 standard, as well as determining variation in performance of hardware from different tag and reader manufacturers. The study is also intended to calculate the amount of money auctioneers and other companies will have to invest to address those environmental concerns and assure that their RFID systems function effectively.

The Kansas Department of Commerce provided $30,000 specifically for research related to determining how cattle-auction markets might be able to comply with a cattle-identification system.

Blasi, who leads KSU's Animal Identification Knowledge Laboratory, says university researchers became aware of shortcomings in RFID technology specific to environmental factors while conducting a test of mobile readers for the back of commercial trucks that would collect data from RFID tags attached to cattle's ears. During this test, they discovered that motors such as those used in auction environments often interfered with RFID reads. "In the course of doing this work, we became aware of performance issues with tags and readers," Blasi says.

With the current study, KSU researchers are measuring the performance of six different transponders: two from Allflex USA and one each from Digital Angel, Temple Tag, Y-Tex and Farnam. Variables measured include read range, resonance, frequency, response and the impact of orientation on the speed of capturing the tag data. They will use a total of 3,000 tags—500 for each of six tag models—then select 40 percent of those in the middle performance level in terms of read range and consistency of tag reads.

Blasi's team will also test stationary RFID interrogators from five different manufacturers: Allflex USA, Digital Angel, Farnam, Osborne Industries and ID-Ology. The testers will evaluate the performance of their products in different cattle-auction environments.

"We will be analyzing 15 different auction markets for EMI [electromagnetic interference]," Blasi says, in auctions around the state of Kansas. The researchers, many of whom are KSU students, will also study the differences in read rates related to the positioning of donut-shaped, quarter-sized RFID tags placed on various parts of the cattle's ears.

Blasi says he expects the study to offer an unbiased and accessible study for beef producers, as well as others in the industry. It will also provide a testing protocol for future studies. "I don't think we know the extent of variation [for RFID technology] out there," Blasi says. "We want an unbiased means to offer something similar to Consumer Reports—what causes a breakdown in read rates—and try to ascertain the cause of variation," he says.

According to Blasi, the results of the study will be made available upon publication in spring 2007.
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