By BRIAN BERGSTEIN, AP Technology Writer
After growing up on a cattle ranch, John Hassell became an electrical
engineer specializing in wireless technology. So he feels doubly
qualified to offer this warning about the system taking shape to track
cattle across America: It won't work.
To be sure, he doesn't quibble with the logic of the system. It stems
from the Bush administration's plan to give agriculture inspectors the
ability to pinpoint the origins of mad cow and other diseases within
48 hours. Livestock facilities and individual animals will get
identifying numbers, which owners will use to document the beasts'
movements in industry databases.
The system isn't expected to be fully online until 2009, but already
it's clear that in the sprawling U.S. beef and dairy industries - home
to 100 million cattle - many producers will automate data gathering
with radio-frequency chips attached to cattle ears.
And that's what has Hassell worried. He contends most of the
radio-frequency chips making their way onto cattle ears are a terrible
Those chips -- based on the same radio-frequency identification (RFID)
technology being integrated for inventory control by large retailers
such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. -- are known as "passive" tags that
broadcast identifying numbers for only a short range, generally just a
While cattle may be considered docile creatures, they are a lot more
mobile and skittish than cases and pallets in Wal-Mart
warehouses. Hassell believes only "active" tags, which broadcast
identification data for up to 300 feet, will consistently work for the
multiple owners and many environments that cattle pass through, from
pastures to stockyards, feed lots and slaughterhouses.
Hassell is so convinced that he's launched his own company, ZigBeef
Inc., to sell long-range tags. The name is a play on the "ZigBee"
wireless standard employed by his tags.
"I really don't think ... on a mass scale that short-range, passive
devices are going to be practical," he said. "The Betamax of the
industry is the short-range tags."
That makes Hassell sound like many other startup technologists -
pooh-poohing a rival standard at the expense of his own. But something
makes this situation a bit unusual: Even beef producers who are using
the passive flavor of RFID don't seem thrilled with it either.
The Joplin Regional Stockyards in Carthage, Mo., began using passive
RFID to identify some cattle in 2001. But co-owner Steve Owens
believes the technology "hinders the speed of commerce."
That's because the thousands of cattle that go through his facility
wouldn't always naturally line up and orderly proceed past devices
that can read electronic ID tags at short range. Most often, cattle
quickly move through his yard in groups.
And if a cow has lost a tag or comes to him without one, "you've got
to catch that animal in a head chute and hold it still so you can put
the tag in an ear," he said. That can take 30 seconds each - which
adds up when you've got thousands of mooing creatures to deal with.
These factors are big because human contact and other stresses can
hurt a cow's ability to gain or maintain weight. That's costly because
beef is, after all, sold by the pound - and generally with slim profit
"I'm sure hoping and open to other technologies that might be able to
solve some of our problems," Owens said.
Even so, he and other people in the industry figure that passive tags
will carry the day.
For one thing, passive tags are cheaper, about $2 each versus roughly
$10. Passive tags don't require batteries, because they get their
power by induction from the electromagnetic energy sent by the reader.
And perhaps most importantly, most of the estimated 5 percent of
cattle owners who are using RFID have passive tags. Changing that
would be hard, since it's important for all players along the complex
chain of cattle ownership to be on the same technical page.
"Despite its warts, I think (passive tagging) is the technology that's
going to be brought to play initially," said Dale Blasi, a Kansas
State University professor researching the challenges of RFID in
cattle. "We're innovative, we'll learn how to work around these
Still, Hassell holds out hope for ZigBeef. While he's not the first to
suggest active tags for livestock, he's encouraged that the
U.S. Department of Agriculture has funded the company with an $80,000
grant. Soon he will be eligible for a $300,000-plus extension.
That makes this a crucial year. He has to attract potential customers
while still fine-tuning his system. Part of his pitch is that while
active tags cost more, their readers can run as low as $50, instead of
hundreds or even thousands of dollars for passive RFID. The active
readers' range could be dialed up or down to register multiple cows or
just one at a time.
Hassell says his tags' batteries can last five to seven years, well
beyond the 15-month life of typical beef cattle. And he asserts that
most of the cost of the tags comes from their plastic housing, not
their circuitry - so ZigBeef tags could easily include both passive
and active chips, soothing producers' fears about choosing the wrong
There are still other methods for recording that an animal crossed a
certain link in the food chain, including retinal scans for
identifying cattle. And there are a spate of old-school record-keeping
practices, which often rely on brands, veterinary papers or visually
spotting numbers on plastic ear tags and writing them down.
Many producers would love to stay that course, fearing the added cost
of more detailed tracking. Some also fear that new databases would
reveal private business information to rivals, regulators or
Meanwhile, pork and poultry producers tend not to have such
worries. Pigs are unlikely to need RFID because the nation's 60
million hogs generally remain in large, easily identifiable lots, said
Bobby Acord, a former USDA administrator who chairs the Swine
Identification Implementation Task Force. Chickens follow a similar
pattern -- and are too numerous to tally individually, anyway, with 9
billion in the U.S. alone.
Early adopters of RFID in cattle have done so largely to better track
sick animals and to document organic, grass-fed or other high-value
beef and dairy. But holdouts note that premiums for RFID-equipped
cattle would likely vanish as more cows get the tags.
Because of such hesitation, the cattle industry widely expects that the
database system -- which is technically voluntary for now -- will become
mandatory to ensure widespread participation.
Once that happens, old methods simply could become too difficult, said
Allen Bright, animal ID coordinator for the National Cattlemen's Beef
Association. For example, he notes that people are prone to error as
they write down ear-tag numbers. It's not exactly easy in auctions
teeming with 10,000 head of cattle.
"Just from a practicality standpoint, you need to automate those
tags," said Bright, who owns a feed lot in Nebraska.
Kevin McGrath, chief executive of Digital Angel Corp., which has sold
6 million passive RFID tags for livestock in North America, contends
that the U.S. beef industry has lost more than $3 billion because
Japan and other Asian markets have been closed since the nation's
first mad cow scare in 2003. If an automated ID system can persuade
officials in those markets to resume accepting American beef, the
technology would more than pay for itself, he argues.
Even so, McGrath says he understands the skepticism. Consequently,
Digital Angel plans to test other tag frequencies in hopes of making
the chips easier to read on moving animals.
"I think we still have to convince the industry that this is the right
solution," McGrath said. When it was suggested to him that cattle RFID
seems an experiment in progress, he agreed. "And it will be for a long
period of time."
On the Net:
USDA page on ID system:
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.