PhD, Diamond K Research and Consulting, Marshville, NC, U.S.A.
RFID – Radio Frequency Identification – What is it?
Most of us are familiar with those discrete little barcode tags that the clerk at the checkout counter searches for on virtually every item we purchase. The now ubiquitous barcode label or tag was first introduced some 30 years ago when a pack of gum was scanned at Marsh Grocery store in Ohio. Barcode labeling is now a worldwide accepted and proven (even required) technology that has allowed manufacturers, retailers, libraries, service companies, medical facilities, research based companies, and yes, even the livestock industry, to reduce its production and distribution costs, maintain better inventory control, and improve security. The introduction of barcode technology made the implementation of the "just in time" concept of manufacturing, shipping, and inventory control possible.
The barcode label is a series of white and black lines that must be physically (usually with a laser) interrogated and decoded to determine the information it contains. Consequently, this requires rather close proximity to the barcode/product and "line-of-sight" access.
Think of an RFID tag as a barcode label on steroids. RFID tags contain an integrated circuit embedded in a thin film medium of the label and uses radio waves to receive and transmit its encoded information thus eliminating the need for "line-of-sight" and close proximity (depending upon the type of tag).
RFID tags can be categorized as either passive or active. Passive tags contain no internal power source and act much like a reflector. When passive tags are interrogated by a power source (i.e., using radio waves from an antenna), they reflect a signal to the antenna/reader that is unique to the information that is "buried" in its circuitry. Active type RFID tags on the other hand contain their own power source and can be compared to a beacon, which constantly emits a signal with or without being interrogated. The active RFID tag is able to operate at greater distances and at higher data transfer rates than passive tags, but not without a cost. Active type RFID tags have limited life and are more expensive to manufacture. Both passive and active RFID tags have their own advantages and disadvantages; determining which are the most effective for an application is dependent upon a number of factors, not the least of which is the value of the item that is being "tagged". Barcode tags can be produced for less than $0.01 each, while RFID tags are considerably more expensive depending upon size and type.
RFID tags can be further classified as read-only or read/write type tags. Compare this to the capabilities of the CD ROM drive on your computer. Read-only means that once the RFID tag is manufactured, it contains all the information it will ever be able to transmit. On the other hand, read/write RFID tags have their own internal memory and the capacity to store information that can be continuously interrogated, changed and/or updated. Obvious differences between these types of tags is in their manufacturing cost, security/encryption, type of reader that is required to interrogate and "write" new information to the tags, amount of internal memory, and size.
RFID versus Barcodes
Obviously RFID technology has benefits over the standard barcode. Some of these include:
- Information stored on the tag can be updated on demand
- Large data storage capacity
- Rapid read rate
- Ability to collect data from multiple tags simultaneously
- Data collection without line-of-sight requirements
- Greater read ranges
- Greater reliability in harsh environments
- Greater accuracy in data retrieval and reduced error rate
It is unlikely that RFID tags will replace barcodes in the near future, but more likely that they will complement each other for many years to come.
It is not the intent of this manuscript to educate the reader about RFID technology, but only to give some indication of the tremendous potential (and possible danger?) that lies in the use of RFID technology. To learn more about RFID technology, the reader is referred to the World Wide Web. A simple Internet search on "RFID" will give one some indication of just how important this technology is becoming to the world's economy and security.
Several excellent introductory white papers on RFID technology can be found at the following WWW addresses:
www.satoamerica.com; www.pragmatyxs.com; www.zebra.com
Using RFID tags on turkey breeder hens?
The use of RFID tags has already become commonplace for the identification of human pets (and even some humans!), zoo animals, and highly prized livestock. Livestock industries where intensive management is required (i.e., dairies, swine farrowing, and turkey breeder operations) and the value of the individual animal is high are likely targets for the use of RFID technology.
The turkey breeder industry is ideally suited for application of RFID technology for the following reasons:
- Parent stock breeder hen cost and replacement values are high.
- The reproductive rate in the turkey breeder hens has plateaued and will likely decrease as more emphasis is placed on market type performance traits in integrated production systems.
- Turkey breeder hens must be artificially inseminated at least bi-weekly during reproduction and the opportunity to make a decision about the fate of each animal is routinely available at little or not extra cost.
- Turkey breeder hens visit nests to lay their eggs making the nest box an ideal platform for RFID systems to measure the individual hen's egg production.
- The lifetime rate of egg production in turkey breeder hens can be accurately predicted from a partial trap nest record.
- The ability to identify and eliminate poor performing hens from a population will not only reduce production costs, but will likely improve the performance of the balance of the population.
- The ability to identify hens with high rates of production for extended laying periods or for recycling and a second lay period can dramatically reduce production costs.
One of the obstacles in many FRID applications is the inability to efficiently handle the large amounts of data that will be collected. To be effective, this data must be managed in almost real time. Computer RAM and ROM memory capacities and computer processing speed are no longer a restriction to the amount of data that can be stored and manipulated. However, the techniques for converting large amounts of data into meaningful information and ultimately knowledge from which management can make intelligent and cost effective decisions has entered a new realm. Effective utilization of the information collected in a livestock system using RFID technology requires a thorough understanding of a species' biology and behavioural characteristics. This knowledge and the use of data mining techniques to detect meaningful patterns in the data collected can result in significant improvements and optimization of the system being monitored. RFID systems will allow us to measure traits heretofore inaccessible.
Examples of how information gathered with RFID technology can be used to improve turkey breeder flock performance
Most turkey breeder hen management techniques and practices are based on average flock statistics.
Employing RFID technology would allow the husbandry man to manage flocks on an individual bird basis. Consider for example the graph showing the distribution of egg production in a typical turkey parent stock turkey breeder flock.
Egg production in a typical parent stock turkey breeder flock is not normally distributed. Depending upon strain, season, and pre-lighting management systems, up to 20% of the hens in a parent stock turkey breeder flock may never produce enough eggs to recover their capitalization cost and breeder feed cost. Identifying these hens early in the production cycle and making correct decisions concerning their management and/or disposal could have a significant impact on overall flock performance.
Removal of non layers and retraining floor layers to the nest
The graph indicates that in a typical flock of turkey breeder hens that perhaps 10% or more of the hens are non-layers or floor layers. In conventional systems, these hens go largely undetected. Using RFID systems and the information collected, the husbandry man can identify these hens early on in production and take appropriate management steps to deal effectively with these hens. Field data suggests that a high percentage (>75%) of floor layers can be easily retrained to lay in the nest. Removing non layers from the population will not only save feed cost, but reduction in nest pressure and bird density will likely have a positive impact on the flock in general.
The expression of broodiness in parent stock turkeys can still be a significant problem for turkey breeder flock managers. The biggest challenge is to identify the "potential" broody hen early on so that appropriate action can be taken to discourage this behavioural trait and thereby avoid production losses. Typically this is done by identifying hens that are routinely sitting in nest boxes and/or those demonstrating outward physical signs of broodiness. In either case, the window of opportunity to avoid production losses is generally missed. Broody control regimes imposed on the whole flock often have negative impacts on flock performance. With and RFID system and individual bird tracking, managers may be able to develop algorithms that can detect the potential broody hen; available resources can then be concentrated on the individual rather than on the flock in general. Such an approach should result in improved labour management and likely better broody detection and more successful broody treatment.
Utilization of hens with high egg production performance
Probably more important than identifying and removing the poor producing hens in a turkey breeder flock is the ability to identify the high producing hens. During the final weeks of scheduled egg production in a flock, identifying hens with the highest rate of lay and extending their reproductive period for several more weeks (or recycling them for a second lay period) would have a significant impact on the economics of producing hatching eggs. However, as previously mentioned, managing and developing the logistical aspects required to take advantage of this information is critical.
The accompanying pie chart suggest that 40%-50% of the cost of producing turkey hatching eggs is in capitalization cost of the breeder hen at the time of lighting. Field trials and computer simulations suggest that using RFID technology to identify the best hens in the flock and extending their lay period and/or recycling could reduce turkey hatching egg production costs by 20+%. This cost reduction comes from a number of benefits such as:
- Reduction in the number of parent stock day old breeders purchased
- Reduction in brood/grow facilities required for rearing breeders
- More efficient use of breeder facilities...more eggs produced per available nest
- More efficient labour utilization
- Improved egg production from better broody control/treatment
- Fewer floor eggs produced and better egg sanitation
- Removal of non layers and poor layers from the flock
- Potentially higher hen to nest ratios
- Reduced risk from rearing fewer breeder replacements
- Improved egg size (average age/egg size of breeders is increased)
- Better overall fertility and hatchability
- More flexibility to balance egg production with demand
Future possibilities for RFID technology in the turkey breeding industry
It is likely that as RFID technology becomes more common place in the turkey breeder industry, cooperation will develop between the primary turkey breeders and their customers. Current breeding systems that employ advanced population genetic techniques such as BLUP (Best Linear Unbiased Predication) rely on information from related individuals to make better breed selection decisions. Just imagine the power of incorporating the use of RFID tracking in pedigree populations and linking ancestry through successive multiplication generations...great grandparents, grandparents, parent stock, and even final product!
We have just begun to realize the power associated with RFID technology. It is certainly in its infancy and the technology will likely improve dramatically in years to come. This manuscript has concentrated on those aspects associated with the production of turkey hatching eggs. However, the potential to incorporate RFID technology throughout the integrated production system is tremendous and only limited by management's ability to effectively convert the tremendous amount of data that can be collected into information and ultimately into knowledgeable decision-making.
Two powerful technologies, RFID and nanotechnology, are about to collide. The rapid development of nanotechnology suggests there may be no limit to where the RFID technology can be taken. At least one manufacturer already suggests that RFID tags can be manufactured extremely small...not much larger than the size of a flake of ground pepper! Just imagine...from the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the places we visit, the things we read, the people we interact with, virtually anything and everything could eventually be RFID "tagged". How society will ultimately deal with and likely want this technology to be controlled is something that is already being given much attention.
RFID technology is in its infancy, yet there is no question that RFID technology is already beginning to impact livestock production systems. Likely the integrated livestock industry will be the first agricultural system to embrace this technology for both production efficiency and security reasons. Information management will be increasingly important to keep production costs low and profits healthy. The future will be exciting!
From Proceedings of the "Midwest Poultry Federation Convention", St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A.