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701x ear tag offers glimpse into the future of livestock management

A newly developed ear tag for cattle by the company 701x is solar powered and Bluetooth enabled, and covers GPS location, health monitoring, calving, estrus/heat, record-keeping and a traceability platform.

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At its testing facility in the Badlands of North Dakota, Fargo-based startup 701x is putting final touches on its ear tag that tracks GPS location, monitors animal activity, as well as its software platform that integrates the tags.

Max Cossette, business developer for 701x, said the tag will be available for purchase starting in March. Cossette was a recent guest on the Agweek Podcast, and shard some details behind the first-of-its-kind cattle tag.

The 701x tag is focused on six critical points: GPS location, health monitoring, calving, estrus/heat, record-keeping and traceability platform. Tracking can begin with a day-old calf and mother, all the way through growth until slaughter, according to the company.

Strong start

701x, which builds tracking devices and software for the livestock industry, was founded just two years ago by Kevin Biffert, president and CEO of the company.

A graduate of North Dakota State College of Science, Biffert started his career as a 3M programmer in Wahpeton, North Dakota. During his time with 3M, he earned an engineering degree from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

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In 1996, Biffert launched Fargo Automation, which built autonomous equipment for medical device and pharmaceutical companies. He sold Fargo Automation in 2017 to German-based Korber Solutions. 701x is Biffert's latest creation — and it's one personal to him and his family, said Cossette.

Biffert comes from a family of 15 who all grew up on a ranch together in North Dakota. After he sold Fargo Automation, Biffert's siblings — some of them still ranchers, started encouraging him to create a new company focused on tracking devices and software for livestock.

Fitbit for cattle

Cossette said the ear tag is basically like putting a cell phone or smartwatch on livestock.

"There's no base station that's required, and no setup fees," said Cossette. "Each tag transmits the data over cellular networks to reach the cloud, and then becomes viewable on our software platform."

The 701x tag is mounted on the backside of the ear, with buttons in the front inner ear, said Cossette. That's to employ the solar panel on the tag, which allows it to recharge itself. He said that's crucial for farmers who can't waste time charging the tags or changing batteries.

"Because when you put cattle out on pasture, it's just not feasible to do that," he said. "We put them on the back of the ear so that hair doesn't get in the way as much, and we've been seeing favorable charging with the solar panel that way."

He said the location of the tag prevents it from getting too dirty or banged up on bars going into feeders.

"We've had to build this tag to be very durable, and withstand all the elements from very hot to cold weather," said Cossette.

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Exact inventory

Cossette said that when you ask a rancher how many cattle they have, they usually give you a round number.

"They say like 150, or 200 — because they truly don't know a lot of times their exact amount of animals," he said. "They take counts as often as they can, but when they're out with their herd, and you got a large herd, it's pretty easy to be a few off."

Cattle are "unsecured valuable assets," said Cossette, and the total number of cattle disappearances remain significant.

Future is here

For the livestock industry, Cossette said the 701x tags are the first of their kind.

"Very unique," he said. "I mean currently, people are just using standard visual tags with numbers on it."

How the tag works is that it tracks every movement of an animal and creates an algorithm from that information, then indicates to a rancher when there's deviations or anomalies in the animal's behavior. Animal activity is mostly eating, drinking, ruminating and walking around, said Cossette.

"Based on those behaviors, we can determine when the animal is calving, going into its heat cycle, and it can give health alerts," he said.

He said that 701x is currently working on a bull mounting activity indicator.

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"That kind of seems to be the biggest thing for people right now, as they want to put these tags on their bulls, who they don't want getting out of the pasture and breeding the neighbors' cows, instead of their own," said Cossette. "They're their highest valued, most expensive animal."

By tracking times of mounts and dismounts, Cossette said that 701x will be able to see when it was a successful breeding or not.

"If you had two bulls in the same pasture, and one only walks on average of 8,000 steps a day and had 10 mounts throughout the breeding season, and you have another bull in that same pasture that walks an average of 20,000 steps a day, and had 40 mounts during the breeding season, people are going to want to know that," said Cossette. "They're going to want to keep getting the genetics from that bull that had way more mounts."

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast.

While covering agriculture he's earned awards for his localized reporting on the 2018 trade war, and breaking news coverage of a fifth-generation dairy farm that was forced to sell its herd when a barn roof collapsed in the winter of 2019. His reporting focuses on the intersection of agriculture, food and culture.

He reports out of Rochester, Minnesota, and can be reached at nfish@agweek.com
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