Industry agency procrastinates as the technology marches on

Many in the cattle industry are probably unaware of the politics and procrastination that is once again happening to the cattle ear tag.

Many in the cattle industry are probably unaware of the politics and procrastination that is once again happening to the cattle ear tag. It has to do with technology progress in radio frequency, that’s the medium that sends signals from ear tags to electronic readers.

The issue is switching from the present low frequency (LF) ear tag to the more advanced ultra high frequency (UHF) tag, it’s a big step and its needed for the industry to keep up.

Ongoing research by such facilities as SAIT and elsewhere are clearly showing the superior readability and reliability of UHF ear tag technology. UHF technology is not exactly new, the concept is about 10 years old. However, this procrastination is seeing the Canadian livestock industry falling behind with traceability and related technology in other countries.

The issue has a tangled history with hidden agendas, vested interests, bureaucratic busybodiness and grandstanding by government politicians. Its genesis goes back to implementing a national cattle ear tag ID program a dozen years ago.

Suffice to note what many of us suspected back then was that the National ID program was merely the first step in a much more complex traceability scheme. The example back then was the European livestock passport program, it was a bureaucrats dream and a producers nightmare. I expect the plan was to use technology (LF low frequency RFID at the time) to make a Canadian version of the animal passport easier and better.

Well, it started out that way, but it now seems to have gotten derailed by the technology steamroller.

The present struggle over which RFID frequency to use started when provincial/federal Ministers of Agriculture declared that they wanted full livestock traceability by an arbitrary date. They threw money at the idea to make it so. However, that brought to light the shortcomings of the present LF RFID frequency being used. It proved to be inadequate and unreliable for the existing speed of commerce.

However, that was not the conclusion the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA) and I expect the CFIA (the ID and traceability regulator) and existing LF tag manufacturers wanted to hear, so procrastination set in. To be fair the CFIA had spent considerable time and taxpayer money getting the existing LF RFID program organized to replace the old bar code system.

Understandably, they were in no mood to approve another complete change to a new technology.

But the existing LF RFID frequency technology was unable to shake its shortcomings. Meanwhile other players were quickly developing UHF technology and proving its superiority. UHF tag technology is also being embraced by other nations and competitors and is gaining momentum and may soon be used as the standard of the American livestock industry. Global acceptance of UHF would clearly indicate that the LF RFID frequency being used by Canada has become outdated and no amount of further research and wishful thinking is going to stop ear tag technology progress.

Yet unofficial comments from industry sources imply the CCIA seems to be less than enthusiastic in facing the UHF reality and is dragging its feet with procrastination about embracing the new technology.

Tag manufacturers may not be enthused about a wholesale change again, but I expect that most are well along with developing UHF tags in order to stay competitive and in the market. Millions are already in use in Brazil and south Korea.

Which brings us to the situation today. The CCIA claims that UHF technology has a number of technical problems, UHF proponents dispute that stating that further development will resolve any concerns. They note that reliability and readability, the big problems with LF, are completely resolved by UHF.

The CCIA brings up retention concerns, which is a bit of red herring, as no tag will ever be perfect. It would seem from tag research labs in Calgary and Europe that the focus is on UHF technology and not on preserving old LF technology. I would suggest that there is a message in that — the CCIA and CFIA need to make that big leap forward as it would seem that UHF technology is leaving their present position in the dust.

The livestock industry deserves the best technology available and should be in the forefront. I expect that if no decision is made soon on embracing UHF technology in Canada, the U.S. will do it for us.

— Ahead of the Heard