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RFID Enters the Pigpen

AgVantage, a plastics manufacturing company in Illinois, is creating an RFID-enabled feeder designed to help hog farmers more efficiently care for their livestock.
By Beth Bacheldor
Feb 01, 2007AgVantage, a plastics manufacturer located in Rockford, Ill., is creating an RFID-enabled hog feeder designed to help farmers more efficiently care for pigs. The feeder, composed of a biocomposite material, will include an active RFID tag embedded in its side, as well as sensors designed to measure weight.

RFID readers installed in hog houses will collect the unique ID numbers stored on the feeders' tags, as well as sensor data indicating how much feed is left in a feeder, according to the feeder's weight. Hog houses keep animals in separate pens, each with its own feeder, says Ron Hagemann, a principal at AgVantage and also VP of technology at New Composite Partners, a newly created AgVantage spin-off that will market and sell the RFID feeders. The biocomposite used to make the hog feeders is being developed in conjunction with Richard LaRock, a chemistry professor at Iowa State University.

This biocomposite material is critical to the success of RFID in the hog houses, according to Hagemann. Typically, hog feeders are made of metal, which can interfere with RF signals, and swapping the metal for plastic is not a viable solution either since plastic is not strong enough by itself. "These are 500- to 1000-pound animals that really bang on the feeders," says Hagemann. "If we put a plastic feeder in the hog house, the hogs would destroy it."

Biocomposites are formed by embedding some type of natural fiber—usually derived from plants or cellulose—into a natural plastic resin, such as one made from corn oil. This is done, says Hagemann, to reinforce it. "This is the first biocomposite feeder on the market. Biocomposites are often used in the aerospace industry."

Another advantage to the biocomposite material is its cost. Derived from corn-based material, the biocomposite is significantly cheaper than petrochemicals used in other plastics. "Also," Hagemann points out, "the biocomposite material is a renewable source, so the bottom line is this can replace higher-cost plastic materials. And it is a green product."

Since the hog-feeder system is still in the design phase, the developers have not yet determined which specific radio frequencies and air-interface protocols the RFID feeders will use. However, the system, as envisioned, will include a database running on a computer situated in each hog house. The interrogators will communicate with the computer via Wi-Fi, uploading the data they collect from the feeders.

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