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Cows check in for meals using electronic ear tags


July 28, 2011

Project leader Ollie Szyszka, with one of the electronically-tagged cows

Project leader Ollie Szyszka, with one of the electronically-tagged cows

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With diseases such as Foot and Mouth, TB, and of course Mad Cow still presenting a danger to cattle, it's of the utmost importance that farmers monitor the health of their animals, and immediately proceed to isolate any that might be showing symptoms. If you have a herd of over 500 cows, however, keeping track of individuals can be rather tricky. That's why scientists at England's Newcastle University have developed electronic ears tags, that they're trying out on a herd of test cattle.

Each ear tag is equipped with an RFID (radio frequency identification) chip, that transmits a short-range signal. Antennas mounted on the feeding troughs will pick up that signal when the cow comes to feed, with a computer keeping track of the amount of time that elapses until the signal is lost when the cow leaves. In this way, the system can keep track of which cows are eating regularly, and that they're getting enough to eat when they do.

If a cow isn't eating enough - which could indicate that it isn't feeling well - the system notifies the farmer, identifying which cow should be looked at.

The cattle also have pedometers attached to their ankles, which measure how much time the animals spend being active versus lying down - another indicator of their health.

"Modern farming systems have minimized the contact between the animal and its keeper," said project co-leader Prof. Ilias Kyriazakis, "so we need to constantly look for ways to re-address the balance."

The Newcastle research was recently published in the Annual Proceedings of the British Society for Animal Science Conference 2011.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

We used RFID ear-tags to measure and record individual feed intakes in pigs at automatic feeders (trickle feed - internal scales) and also used them to identify breeding stock.

They are now commonly used in automatic feeding stations for group housed sows - the tag unlocks the feeding area, distributes the allocated amount of feed for that individual animal, usually in small allotments (and in some cases the system also records what is left when she departs the feeder) - only then is the nest one allowed to eat. Each sow ends up with an accurate daily feed intake record, and receives the desired level of feeding.

Very well established systems with 20 years of research and practical trail and error usage.


It is disappointing to see an article claiming to be a breakthrough when the technology has been around for many years. I worked on a development of this exact system in New Zealand five years ago to bring some improvements to some hardware and the feeding algorithms. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IP0uUHP8Yww&sns=em

Perhaps you should do some more research before such stories in future. Or make it obvious that it is an existing technology with a new twist or something like that to retain your awesome cred and name.

Btw: still love gizmag!


Yes. I have to agree with the others; This technology has been around for a considerable time. In fact, RFID is compulsory in the UK.


There is a far better, older, more environmentally friendly, and healthy solution than any of sort of tracking or tagging technology. It\'s called \"eat less meat\". Really, would one less big mac a day be that bad?

Charles Bosse

@Charles Bosse, This article has absolutely nothing to do with meat consumption besides the fact that these are milk cows. Most people could tell that from looking at the breed! Having said that, what on earth does tracking/tagging technology have to do with your personal vegetarian message? Perhaps you could take your soapbox and go find a Gizmag article that does relate? I think it is an excellent article even if similar technology exists. Anything that helps automate the monitoring of large herds of any kind of farm animal is a good thing for both the farmer and the animals and like the article says, it helps control diseases. Large animals like these are expensive and most farms operate on some pretty thin margins!

Will, the tink
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