RFID Brings Intelligence and Treatment to Livestock Production

By Claire Swedberg

Alberta company GrowSafe is pairing RFID identification with sensor data at feed and drink troughs, in order to identify and analyze the health and behavior of cattle and other livestock from birth to slaughter.

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Animal technology company GrowSafe Systems has been providing its feed lot customers with radio frequency identification solutions to track cattle health and behavior for the past four years. More recently, the company has been working on monitoring grazing cattle. With this information, farmers and producers have been monitoring not only where each animal is located, but also—by pairing a cow’s ID number with its sensor data—how that animal is acting and feeling.

In that way, farmers can better predict when a particular animal may be ill, as well as which cattle are thriving and which genetic factors make them thrive. Now, says Alison Sunstrum, GrowSafe’s co-CEO, the company is moving beyond the capturing and analyzing of data to providing treatment to specific animals, based on the collected RFID- and sensor-based data.

GrowSafe’s Alison Sunstrum

GrowSafe has spent several decades researching and testing how RFID can be used to identify livestock. The Alberta company began its RFID foray with ostrich chicks. Because the birds were highly valued and very sensitive (only about 12 percent reach maturity), the firm began tracking the birds in the 1990s via 125 kHZ low-frequency (LF) RFID-enabled leg bands, to track how long they remained at the feeding trough and how much they ate during each visit. That information enabled ostrich farmers to better identify which birds were at risk, and their survivability improved with resulting treatment.

GrowSafe’s system has since been expanded to livestock, most commonly cattle. The company offers systems that measure feed and water consumption, which resemble typical steel farm equipment but, in fact, have RFID antennas and reading technology built into them, along with sensors that weigh animals, or their feed, water and environment. That sensor data, paired with each animal’s ID, enables GrowSafe to provide farmers and producers with information regarding every animal and its behavior.

But merely collecting the data is not enough to improve operations, Sunstrum notes, and GrowSafe has been focusing on how the RFID and sensor data can be filtered and analyzed. GrowSafe’s integrated hardware and software, in fact, captures the data, analyzes any changes in animal behavior or weight, and is designed to display alerts if such changes take place.

Now, the company is taking another step toward that effort by automating some responses made with regard to animals’ status, such as providing minerals or vitamins or dispersing a variety of medications based on the sensor information. The solution can also automatically spray-paint the back of a cow as it is feeding or drinking, if the system identifies that it requires additional help, thereby making it easier for the feed lot health crew to visually identify that animal.

GrowSafe recommends LF half-duplex ear tags to its customers, or a customer can acquire its own tags. The company has tested all types of RFID frequencies, Sunstrum says, and has settled on LF half-duplex tags due to their short-range transmission, which ensures that a tag will be read only when the animal to which it is attached is actually in the unit where sensor data is being collected. In addition, she says, the firm determined that LF tags could be read reliably in the presence of metal, dirt and water.

“If a transponder will read at a 12-inch distance from the antenna through air,” Sunstrum says, “it will also read at this distance when there is flesh, mud, glass, water or any other non-metallic object in between.” GrowSafe built its own systems that combine its hardware, sensors and software, as well as a local data-acquisition computer

Typically, an animal goes to a feed or water trough, where measurement hardware has been positioned. The sensors on the feed trough can measure changes at a resolution of 10 grams (0.4 ounce), so they can identify how much feed is leaving the trough as a cow is standing there. Load sensors affixed around the water trough can measure the weight of the animal itself as it drinks.

When the units read a tag, that tag’s ID number and accumulated animal environmental and other sensor data is forwarded to a gateway via the best transmission method onboard, such as a Wi-Fi, cellular or satellite connection. The units form a mesh network; the data can be sent directly to a computer gateway located as far as 60 miles away, or by piggyback even further. The data processing and analytic software runs both on a local server dedicated to a customer site, as well as on GrowSafe’s own hosted server.

Each day, the GrowSafe software audits information about feed supplied to each animal, as well as weight and other sensor data, then provides recommendations to the customer. This can include how long each animal spends feeding or drinking, how fast the cow consumed its feed, how many animals feed at once and information about social hierarchies—which animal feeds first, for instance, or which cows feed together.

The technology development began with simply identifying when ostriches or other animals were located at a feed trough. However, Sunstrum says, “Today, we have a sophisticated platform that collects data continuously, and we can use that data to make management decision-making predictions.” Those predictions, she adds, are the first line of defense in mitigating potential health, social or genetic problems, or in leveraging certain animals’ strengths. The solution enables users to compare feed conversion and weight gain with the livestock’s genetic background.

“Over the past few years,” Sunstrum states, “we have been working on automating the response” to sensor and RFID data. For several years, she explains, the company has been offering the first phase in that concept, by enabling automatic spray-painting. If, while a cow is feeding, the software determines that it could have a health issue—due, for example, to a reduction in its feed or water intake several times in a row—the GrowSafe unit automatically spray-paints the animal’s back. The customer can then receive a list of cows that may require treatment, and a worker can simply walk through the lot looking for those with painted backs.

What’s more, Sunstrum reports, the technology can automatically deliver substances to animals based on sensor data.

In the big picture, Sunstrum says, GrowSafe envisions the automatic collection of data throughout the food chain, from the soil in which animal feed plants are grown to the plant’s health, the animal’s health and, finally, the quality of the meat provided to consumers. “There’s a relationship between human health, food, plants and the soil” in which plants are grown, she explains, and the tracking of livestock health is the beginning of automating the collection of the entire food supply data, as well as improving sustainability and productivity based on that information.