Beef is big business, more than $50 billion/year, in fact. So, it goes without saying that tracking cows is important, especially in the wake of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy a.k.a. mad cow disease) and other animal diseases. The USDA is developing the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) to identify and track individual animals, the aim being to allow the USDA to track a diseased animal back to its source, through every location it's been, within 48 hours. Under NAIS, a national database maintains animal ownership and location histories.
Identify and track cows more easily
So how do you track a cow, capturing data whenever the cow is treated, moved, or sold? Sure, you can add a passive RFID chip to a cow ear tag, but this requires RFID readers to be fairly close (4 ft. max.) in order to read out the information on the tag. Moving a herd of several hundred cows, one at a time through a chute, is time consuming. It's also stressful for the animal; the greater the stress, the greater the weight loss, and since weight equals money, that's a noticeable drop in the animal's worth. If you're using a handheld reader to do a head count of your herd of 60 cattle (all of whom are similar in size and color), well, good luck.
Enter ZigBeef, an Oklahoma-based start-up company. Rather than use passive RFID, ZigBeef uses active RFID, incorporating IEEE 802.15.4 wireless radios into the ear tags. Depending on the orientation of the animal, the tags can be read from 100–300 ft. away. The ability to quickly and effectively read the cattle's tags from this distance enables a couple of things. Ranchers can do faster, easier, and more frequent head counts of the herd—maybe by simply driving into the pasture and having the cattle gather around the truck. Push a button, get an accurate head count. If an animal is missing, the rancher can take immediate steps: fix a fence, locate a cow that's wandered off from the herd to have her calf, be alert for rustlers.
Livestock auction sites can handle millions of head of cattle per year. In feedlots where around 70% of U.S. cattle spend the last few months of their lives, up to 15,000 head can be held at one location. Using active RFID both lessens the stress on the animals and makes accurate data gathering significantly easier (and more frequent).
Although the pilot project is currently concentrating on using just the radios, John Hassell, the president of ZigBeef, says they'd like, ultimately, to use some of the features of the ZigBee protocol for mesh networking and security.