Many people may be unaware that the farming industry has progressed and advanced over the past 20 years at a very high rate. New machinery and heavy equipment fitted with GPS technology is now used to make tending the land less time consuming and has allowed farmers to increase productivity.
GPS tracking of livestock is not a new science, surfacing more frequently over the last few years. GPS monitoring technology has a lot of potential for farmers, allowing them to monitor the movements of livestock throughout the landscape, plot grazing patterns and see what areas the livestock have been depleting nutrients in the soil. GPS systems have also been used as an electronic tracking method. This system places GPS receivers on every animal so that their exact location can be found. The GPS collars required for this system can be expensive.
However the drawbacks of the system relate to cattle theft. At present all the reliable GPS systems require the tracker to be worn as some sort of collar similar to that indicated. The drawback of this from a security point of view is that it can be easily removed by any would be thief. The GPS tracker needs power to keep it active thus it needs some form of power source thus making any internal solution difficult for cattle in particular.
Several companies have developed products with GPS tracking capability, offering a full array of integrated GPS paraphernalia for livestock. These systems not only monitor health conditions and predator activity, they can also create invisible fences (which limit the range of livestock much like shock collars for dogs), and allows farmers to send out drones from their smartphone to get a video feed of live conditions in the field. Though the technology is in the early development stages, it gives an idea of the future possibilities for wearable technology in agriculture. This system is still in development however and is not available on the market yet locally. In addition as the Department of Agriculture has not yet approved this system for the identification of livestock the system will have to be utilised in addition to the measures approved currently by the Department.
Barcodes are extensively used throughout NI and beyond. These codes are placed on existing ear tags enable electronic identification without having to re-tag an animal. Reading these tags with a handheld reader requires close proximity and a direct line of sight to the barcode. From a security point of view however these tags are removable so are not an ideal solution.
These can be used to identify Sheep in NI under current legislation however they are not suitable for all breeds of sheep. The bolus can be applied orally by the farmer however it is only really detectable when the animal goes through a run. Although only a deterrent if the Animal is picked up in a run through/race reader.
In cattle the bolus is not accepted as a form of ID under the current IRM legislation and the bolus is more difficult to pick up with a reader as it may need to be held under each individual animal to pick it up. The technology is developing and manufacturers claim that they can track from up to 15km, however this is subject to environmental considerations which can restrict the coverage of the scanner.
The most significant identification advances have come via electronic tracking methods such as radio frequency identification (RFID). RFID systems use a tag with a unique serial number and an antenna. A reader device accesses the tag information via the antenna. RFID ear tags are just like standard livestock ear tags except they contain the proper circuitry to be read by an RFID antenna. Ear tags are the most common type for use with larger livestock.
RFID is already being widely used in the livestock industry in other parts of the world, but in Northern Ireland there are no acceptable forms of RFID technology which would meet the needs of the Department in respect of Cattle Identification. The problem with implanting tags/chips in cattle is similar to the problem with boluses in that the tags can be difficult to pick up. However some companies have developed boluses which can be tracked from a Gateway (Local Antenna) for up to five years and over a distance of 10 kilometres. The RFID Technology uses a Long wave spectrum which can ‘see’ through containers or buildings unlike gps.
In Northern Ireland however this technology is not at present permitted for animals which may enter the food chain. At present we are awaiting action from the EU Commission to bring forward legislation to support the electronic identification of Cattle. A new EU Animal Health Regulation will become law this summer and the Commission will publish draft legislation for consideration by member states. However with the uncertainty in this area it may take some time before new legislation is enacted.
In the absence of other electronic means of Identification, Freeze branding is a quick, humane and simple procedure that brands the last three digits of ear tags onto the animal, to protect against theft. The branding of cattle has a long history as a means of identification as well as preventing theft and, whilst hot-branding is no longer legal, the modern method uses branding irons super-cooled with dry ice to remove the pigment from the animal’s skin and hair.
Firstly, the area to be marked is clipped and cleaned. Then, super chilled markers are placed on the skin and held in place for approximately 30 seconds. The extreme cold kills the pigmentation in the hair cells so that new hair grows back white, making the mark visible. The actual branding process does not cause the animal any pain but it may suffer some mild discomfort.
Freeze branding is the only visible deterrent for thieves and this is borne out by the fact that when cattle thefts do occur, thieves will take unmarked cattle in preference to those which are marked.