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Turning a Cow's Ear Into RFID Data

Cows are going digital in the tiny Internet world of RFID  data tagging and data collection.

Livestock customers of IBM and agricultural technology provider TekVet are trying out an RFID system of monitoring livestock.

The system includes tiny sensors attached to the cows' ears that monitor their body temperatures then pump that data via a broadcast range of about 300 to 500 feet.

The tags take the core temperature of cattle as part of a program between IBM and the Salt Lake City-based TekVet in order to help prevent Mad Cow, Hoof and Mouth and other diseases from harming the food supply worldwide.

The idea is to keep an eye out for rising body temperatures in order to ferret out a potentially diseased animal from the rest of the herd.

Although RFID monitoring systems for livestock are not new, the wider broadcast range of the sensor chips transmitting the cows data is.

The livestock tracking system, built by TekVet, also provides other pertinent animal or herd data, as well as the specific location of individual cattle in real time.

The "TekSensor" placed in each animal's ear transmits body temperature and herd location data to wireless feedlot sensors, said John Del Pizzo, an RFID Solutions executive with IBM.

The information on the herds, collected from millions of cows, is then uploaded to IBM systems.

From there, cattle producers and investors monitor the data to keep an eye out for hot heads in the beef supply.

"If you're covering a wide space like a feedlot, you can put [the readers] up on towers, which can save on cost," Del Pizzo told internetnews.com.

Most "passive" tagging systems used in the manufacturing or retail sectors have a broadcast range of about 15 feet from the sensor to the readers, he added.

"Generally, these are used in choke points, such as in a distribution center where the reader there has limited range."

In this case, the information from the cows' ears is relayed to a collection of wireless receiving stations on a producer's lot.

From there, it's transported via a private satellite network to TekVet's data center, where IBM System x servers are helping to process the data in real-time.

In terms of cost, the 300 to 500 feet range of the reader system makes all the difference.

The cost per cow is an estimated $3.30 for the systems in place, Del Pizzo said. That may look pricey compared to "passive" tagging systems that average about 20 cents per tag.

But the "active tags" contain replaceable batteries and can be re-used, compared to disposable passive tags that also have a shorter broadcast range.

TekVet customers can access the temperature and animal identification information online to evaluate the health of their cattle for a wide range of infections and medical conditions.

The companies said this allows producers to take immediate action when precautionary measures are required, such as administering medication or segregating infected animals from the herd.

Del Pizzo said it also provides more accurate and automated management of animals while providing crucial information for cattle investors, regulators, and ultimately, consumers, who demand a safe food supply.

The monitoring system, designed in 2003, is expanding globally, especially in major beef producing countries throughout Latin America and Asia.

Japan recently began lifting restrictions on U.S. beef imports since they were closed down in 2003 due to Mad Cow disease outbreaks.

IBM is among a bevy of solutions providers ramping up their RFID practices.

Big Blue also recently launched a new tutorials via its alphaworks.com developer site in order to help developers ramp up their skill sets to meet the growing demand for RFID systems.

Research firm In-Stat, for example, reckons that 33 billion radio tags will be produced by 2010, up by many orders of magnitude from the 1.5 billion they counted in 2005.