Radio Frequency Identification Tags Can Do Big Work Around the Farm

Some of them are only about the size of your thumbnail, but RFID tags can do big work around the farm. That is the hope, at least, of companies like ThingMagic, a division of Trimble. It already partners with Harvest Tec in supplying hay bale identification systems for AGCO, New Holland and Case IH.
Hay bale identification systems fit on balers and attach tags to bales as they come out. Each tag contains information about date and time of baling, moisture content and weight. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer photo by Jim Patrico)
The devices fit on balers and attach tags to bales as they come out. Each tag contains information about date and time of baling, moisture content and weight. To harvest that information, a farmer or hay buyer uses a hand scanner, which reads a microchip in the tag. RFIDs in this application help farmers with inventory control and help buyers track the history and quality of the hay they buy. That's valuable information for both.
The inventors of RFID devices probably didn't have hay on their minds when they came up with the technology. Bernd Schoner, who co-founded ThingMagic in 2000 with some other Massachusetts Institute of Technology grads, says their original idea for RFID was for use in the retail supply industry. Other RFID innovators helped create devices for all sorts of non-farming applications, including security access cards for entering buildings; automated tags for toll highways; and inventory control systems in factories and warehouses.
Trimble was interested in RFID for their construction division (think inventory) as well as agriculture and made an offer for ThingMagic in 2010. Schoner came along with the deal and is now a vice president of business development. One of his responsibilities is to find new agricultural uses for RFID.
Besides hay bales, farmers and ranchers are already using RFID in identification ear tags for cattle. Schoner suggests there are more uses to be found. For instance, a rancher could strategically install RFID readers at water troughs and feedbunks. A wireless reader could note when and how often, for instance, cow #4525 drank and ate. The information could be used to make management decisions to improve productivity.
A combination of GPS and RFID technologies to track the movements of individual animals as they roam pastures is possible, Schoner says. While such tracking on a large scale is not economically realistic now, it could be in the future.
More sophisticated "active" RFID tags can also gather information. These are larger and require batteries. But beekeepers already have adopted them to monitor hives long distance for temperature and -- by inference -- bee numbers and colony health.
Could similar technology be used to track grain -- especially identity preserved grain -- as it moves from field to processor? "That is technically perfectly feasible," Schoner says. It would only cost about $1,000 to put a reader on a combine to start the "chain of provenance." Active tags cost only a few dollars each.
Verifying the identity of grain along its path would require a combination of technologies to geo-reference grain as it is harvested; to track it through cleaning and storage; to track it again through transportation; and to process to the end user. Could be complicated, Schoner says. But such information could add value for the producer as well as the buyer and the seller. Now to work out the details.


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