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ZigBeef Offers Ranchers a Long-Distance Cattle Head Count

The long-range RFID system promises to provide ranchers, their commercial interests and rodeos an easier method for tracking their animals, through ZigBee technology.
By Claire Swedberg
Feb 21, 2008A new active RFID system is set to help ranchers and rodeos track animals from a distance, as well as measure an animal's movement during a rodeo competition, for instance, when it is difficult to track exactly when a bull came out of its gate, or when it was roped and immobilized. The solution, provided by a startup company called ZigBeef, is being developed to allow cattle ranchers and their financial backers to track each head of cattle on a daily basis. The system became commercially available two weeks ago.

By using a system based on the ZigBee (802.15.4) standard, users can capture an animal's unique ID number with a handheld interrogator from several hundred feet away. In this manner, says John Hassell, ZigBeef's president and CEO, ranchers can keep a much more accurate count of their animals, since the active system makes reading easy enough for ranchers to do so daily. The system is being offered as an alternative to the passive RFID tags approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for the National Animal Identification System (NAIS).

ZigBeef-tagged cattle can be read several hundred feet from a ZigBeef reader.

Most interest thus far, Hassell says, has come from "serious commercial producers" in the United States, United Kingdom and South America, as well as from cattle lending associations such as banks or credit corporations. With cattle valued at an average of $1,000 per head, he adds, there is an interest in tracking that asset and ensuring it does not leave the ranch, stays healthy and is not stolen.

Ranchers typically use the system by capturing cattle ID on a daily basis while they are being fed. Unlike with passive systems, users need not approach an animal to capture its tag number. Rather, a farmer simply uses a laptop with a USB RFID reader—designed and built by ZigBeef—when feeding the animals.

Alternatively, Hassell says, ZigBeef has also designed an interrogator with a PDA interface that can be used with a Hewlett Packard iPAQ or other PDA with a serial connection. Cattle usually cluster around the feeding truck, and all ID numbers can be captured on the USB reader at that time. Upon returning to the office, the user can plug the USB stick directly into a computer, where the data is then downloaded as a list of serial numbers.

By next year, Hassell says, the company plans to offer the system with ZigBee mesh capabilities so cattle tags can transmit data from one to another, thereby extending the read range depending on how many cattle are spread throughout the area, with one tag sending data to the next, and ultimately to a reader. In the meantime, he notes, further research and development must first be conducted. "There are a lot of unique challenges with cattle," Hassell says. "Normally a hop-to-hop environment is stationary," whereas cattle are constantly moving.

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