Improving Farming with RFID

Posted by Ken Lynch on Tue, Aug 10, 2010 @ 10:00 AM

Making Hay with RFID

Farming includes a wide spectrum of agricultural activities. At one end is the subsistence farmer, who farms a small area with limited resources.  At the other end is commercial and industrial agriculture farming which involves large fields, large numbers of animals, and a high level of mechanization and efficiency.  While farming has been around for a long time (reportedly since 8000 BC!), the ways in which land is farmed and is constantly evolving.  As a result, each acre farmed is producing more food for more people – an important trend given the world’s population growth trends.

When you think of RFID and sensors being used in the agriculture and farming industries, tracking livestock with low frequency (LF) RFID tags to automate processes like feeding, weighing, and disease management may come to mind.  Or, maybe using RFID and sensors for food security and cold chain systems.  But hey, what about automating hay harvesting?

Harvesting Hay with RFID

Harvesting hay is a very precise process with a very large impact on the success of a farm’s feeding program.  Not only do livestock get nourishment from eating hay, but farmers who harvest hay need it to be top quality in order to sell it for a good price.  Hay is at its prime during a specific one week period during its maturation.  Passed that point, it becomes coarse and dry and much of its nutritional value has faded. Once the hay is cut, it then has to be dried and then baled. Tracking the moisture levels in bales is one of the most important aspects of the entire hay baling process.  A bale with a moisture content above 20% is at risk for spontaneous combustion due to elevated heat levels during its respiration process.  Any bale harvested below 12% has experienced field losses, leading to low feeding value and yield losses.

As with any job or process, not everything always goes perfectly and in the business of hay harvesting, the quality of some bales turn out to be better than others.  Cows’ multiple stomachs can properly digest hay at many different qualities - even moldy. But, the production of milk and meat from cows fed high quality hay is significantly higher than those fed a lower quality.  Other animals such as horses are at a higher risk of getting sick from eating bad hay – elevating the need for growers to produce high quality hay for these species.

What was once managed manually can now be done much more efficiently with newer technology and machinery.  Advances in baling equipment have led to the production of large square bales that have increased field harvesting capacities and mechanized handling and feeding.  Bales can now be created by one tractor that cuts and rolls it in one step.  Conditioners are available to speed up the drying process and now – believe it or not - RFID tags are being incorporated to monitor every detail about each individual bale.

In the Field with Harvest Tec

Harvest Tec

ThingMagic partner Harvest Tec offers a useful RFID Bale Identification Systems add-on for three popular hay baler machines: AGCO, New Holland, and Case IH.  Harvest Tec chose to develop RFID-enabled solutions because of the technology’s widespread use across many industries and low cost per tag.  In their solution, as the bales are leaving the tractor a thin RFID tag is wrapped around one of the twine holding the hay together.  On this small tag, all of the data essential for farmers is stored.  With either a handheld or tractor mounted reader anyone can see which field the hay came from, on what date it was harvested, average and high moisture levels, temperature, weight, amount of preservatives used, latitude and longitude of the position the bale was harvested from, and a unique ID number.  With this valuable information, farmers can distribute hay to their livestock and ensure it is of consistent quality.

The rest of the hay can be sold for a higher price since the buyer knows exactly how nutritious each bale is.  Bales with too much moisture or mold can be removed from a stack so they don’t contaminate the rest of the bales.  These bales can then be efficiently used to feed cows or other uses where top quality is not a priority.

Harvest Tec has produced a few cool videos and have them posted on their website.  Check them out and let us know about other areas of the agriculture and farming industries that you feel can benefit from the use RFID.

Tags: RFID, Sensors, Agriculture

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