The Eyes Have It

Optibrand's approach to livestock identification should force the industry to come to terms with some tough questions.

If super-secret agent and gadget man, James Bond, had taken a stab at livestock identification (ID), the results might have looked a lot like the devices and technology developed by Optibrand of Fort Collins, CO.

First, there's the company's flagship product, which allows producers to permanently identify cattle via scanning the retinal vascular pattern (RVP) in an animal's eyes. Using these retinal images, which are more unique than human fingerprints, to identify livestock is what many think of first when they hear the company's name.

Fact is the company's OptiReader — a universal animal ID data collection device — is arguably generating the most excitement.

More Than Management

“Commonly, when we in the industry think of livestock ID, we think of it as a tool to manage cattle and cattle data,” explains Bruce Golden, Optibrand's CEO and the brainchild behind the company. “But, identity capable of standing up in court when it comes to contractual claims and regulatory compliance must be permanent and tamper-proof.”

Think in terms of a car license plate, Golden says. It can be removed, switched from one vehicle to another or replicated. On the other hand, the vehicle identification number (VIN) etched onto the car itself and recorded in a central database is a permanent identifier of an individual car.

“Retinal images are the means of providing ID that's permanent and tamper-proof in livestock, ID that supports federal regulations and contractual claims. National animal ID is all about that, it's not about managing cattle,” Golden says.

Indeed, USDA's apparent quest for animal trace-back within 48 hours depends on identifying cattle uniquely and permanently, then recording their whereabouts by tying the animal ID to a unique premise ID number.

“Animal ID without knowing the location isn't traceability,” Golden says.

With that in mind, when an OptiReader scans the RVP of an animal, it stamps the image with the time and global positioning system (GPS) coordinates of where the scan was taken. That provides proof a particular animal was, in fact, at a particular location at a certain time.

Whether it's the RVP, another biometric, or something else, arguably, at least, Optibrand's choice challenges the industry to face up to the issue of ID permanence: identifying and tracking the cattle themselves rather than the identifiers used to identify the cattle.

Reading The Identifiers

Whichever technologies the marketplace ultimately selects as the basis of a national ID program, a current challenge — especially at such assembly points as auction markets, feedlots and harvest facilities — is that a variety of ID technologies are in use.

That's why the OptiReader is turning heads. Golden says the device will read and record any current ID technology thrown its way. Besides taking retinal scans if the user chooses, the universal data collector can snap digital pictures of dangle tags, tattoos and brands, plus read both the half-duplex or full-duplex transponders found in radio-frequency ID (RFID) tags. And, it has the capability to scan barcodes.

More important, Optibrand's proprietary software converts the data from these diverse technologies into a single, encrypted, data stream that's accompanied by a time and GPS stamp.

The flexibility of the OptiReader led Colorado-based Swift & Company to begin using the device in its Greeley harvest facility. Jim Herlihy, Swift's vice president of communications, says the device allows them to record each animal entering the plant, no matter the ID device the animal arrives with, then marry that ID to the barcode of the temporary tag the carcass carries throughout processing.

“We were looking at traceability long before bovine spongiform encephalopathy became an issue in North America,” he says. “We know that in the international marketplace, traceability has been an interest of our customers. We believe it's inevitable that it will be of increasing importance to our domestic customers as well.”

Herlihy explains Swift is piloting both RVP and the OptiReader as tools for the company's Swift Trace program. Swift's program already enables them to track cattle from the feedlot through the finished box phase of the chain.

Managing Costs

While the specific cost of Optibrand's products depend on volume, Golden explains, “In effect, we amortize the cost of the equipment and services to our customers through a transaction fee. That means there is a low cost of entry up front, then a minimal cost — cents per head — for each transaction.”

In addition to working with packers, feedlots and large commercial cattle operations in the U.S., Optibrand is currently involved in a pilot project with the largest auction company in the Midwest. That outfit is using the OptiReader to record animal ID and match it to premise ID of origin, auction market ID and the barcoded backtags used for the sale. Optibrand also has New Zealand and South African clients.

“This technology and our business model makes low-cost, national animal ID feasible,” Golden says. But, he emphasizes, “This is value-added to other existing ID technologies, not a replacement for them.”

As an example, Golden mentions a large cow-calf operation that has begun using retinal scans in tandem with RFID tags. This firm believes it can pay for the cost of the scans simply by maintaining the identity they otherwise lose each year through lost tags — 10-15% in rough country.

“We provide a solution to flexible ID data collection, and do it securely, rapidly and affordably,” Golden says. “We're leveraging everything that has happened in commercial computing and maximizing it in this application. This represents a real kismet of technology and need coming together at the right time.”