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Simplicity and scalability the key to Ceres Tag’s global approach

Ceres Tag’s smart ear tags will equip farmers with sophisticated data to better manage their livestock, reduce risk and confidently finance agriculture. With a global e-commerce launch around the corner and a head start on trials in the US, Canada and Switzerland – the sky’s the limit for the Queensland-based startup.

7 min read
David Smith Ceres Tag

David Smith acknowledges that the simplicity of his Ceres Tag technology for animals will provide users with access to an increasingly complex range of data – a fact thrillingly recognised by a global win in the 2020 SVG Ventures’ THRIVE Australia Challenge.

US-based SVG Ventures, partnered with the Victoria Government and CSIRO to drive commercialisation of Australia’s agrifood tech startups and create a bridge to Silicon Valley investors and corporate partners.

The matchbox-sized Ceres Tag, weighing 32 grams, is the world’s first direct to satellite animal tracking and data platform. David Smith said he and his wife Melita couldn’t be more thrilled with the win, ahead of the product’s commercial launch in May 2021.

“Someone tagged it the ‘FitBit for cows’ but we prefer ‘Apple for animals’,” David joked.

“The beauty of Ceres Tag is its simplicity and scalability. Ceres Tag is a plug-and-play, world-first, direct to satellite animal tracking and data system. Anyone, anywhere in the world can go online and buy a box of tags to try, put them on the animals and they start working.” 

Global uses for smart ear tag technology

Developed initially for livestock, the tag can run for more than 10 years without a battery change and continuously monitor all aspects of animal behaviour, health and welfare. Data is transmitted via a constellation of low earth orbit (LEO) satellites without the need for any infrastructure.

The winning point of difference for Ceres Tag, David believed, was its ease of adoption and simplicity of access for the user, as well as the broad range of applications.

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SVG Ventures’ THRIVE Founder and CEO John Hartnett agreed. “We were also impressed with their leadership and customer traction.”

“In terms of similarities, several of the startups had direct experience within agriculture either through family farms or personal connections, which helped give them a better perspective and a greater appreciation of the customer experience,” said John.

Alignment with the U.N’s Sustainable Development Goal’s was also an important consideration, John added.

“We aim to be the world’s first accredited smart ear tag for traceability, provenance and biosecurity purposes, but we also have trials about to get underway using it to prevent livestock theft, monitor wild animals in Africa and eradicate feral pests in Australia,” David said.

aerial livestock

“We anticipate Ceres Tag will in the future be used to monitor and muster herds remotely, assess pasture utilisation and animal health – very useful in calving season – as well as provide data to feed into risk assessments for farm insurance and calculate carbon credits.”

The key to its reach is a symbiotic partnership with Globalstar, one of the largest LEO satellite companies in the world.

Wherever an enquiry comes from in the world, Ceres Tag can ship directly from its manufacturer based in Taiwan and the customer can have instant coverage via Globalstar. “Another great relationship we have,” added David.

“All that data starts flowing through the cloud and we can send it back to the animal owner to be accessed through existing herd or farm management software.”

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Trials in Canada, US and Switzerland

The tag was invented by David and Melita, a fifth-generation Queensland cattle producer, in response to a need they saw for better data collection without hanging ‘earrings’ of tags on their animals.

Already cattle producers in Canada and the US are ‘super keen’ to try the tags, David said, and trials will be held in Switzerland this year.

Angus cow and calf in Canada snow

Photo credit: Canadian Angus Association Facebook 

“Canada is a bit different; they may have up to 2,000 acres but that may be a dozen different properties within a 100-mile radius, and they’ve got weather challenges. This morning it was -250C, so they need Ceres Tag to see that their animals are safe if they can’t get to them.”

“In the US the average herd size is only about 50 animals, as opposed to Australia which is 500 animals. But a lot of the producers have got second jobs [in the US], so they want to feel confident about their animals, while they’re at their job in town.”

Flood losses have silver lining for tagged cattle

After patenting the Ceres Tag, and receiving an animal ethics approval David approached CSIRO and Meat and Livestock Australia for support and tagged the first trial cattle in 2019. Soon after the devastating North Queensland floods resulted in stock losses of 650,000 cattle – but there was a silver lining for Ceres Tag.

“Our trial cattle were washed away and some died but we could trace all of them. Many producers couldn’t, and the terrible thing was that they had to bury the cattle so quickly and couldn’t identify a lot of the animals,” said David.

“Many weren’t insured because the premiums are so high and they didn’t have the data collection system to quantify them, so Ceres Tag has the opportunity to change many aspects of the livestock industry.”

While conventional livestock ear tags use radio frequency identification (RFID) to identify animals and allow farmers to monitor weight and undertake basic husbandry, Ceres Tag incorporates a GPS tracking system, RFID, accelerometer, ambient temperature, geofencing capability, Bluetooth and satellite connectivity.

Independent analysis puts a price on value

In January 2021 Ceres Tag engaged PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting (Australia) to undertake an independent review of the potential benefits of the platform, focusing on the Australian beef cattle industry.

PwC’s quantitative analysis included use cases for traceability (cattle premiums attributable to improved provenance), enhanced monitoring and timely treatment of disease and reduced financing risk from the availability of up-to-date, animal-specific data.

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While David was happy that PwC assessed Ceres Tag as being worth $200/head on a beef steer weighing 600kg plus, David expects the actual value proposition will be substantially higher when taking into account future use.

Ceres Tag testing on livestock

“We’re working with quite a few other technologies that will use Ceres Tag as the base to get started, including drones doing mustering, satellite pasture evaluation, and using Bluetooth to do walkover weighing with portable equipment in the field.

“So you could be using a pasture feed intake algorithm for feed efficiency, rate that on the amount of weight gain per day and then look at your phenotype data – which cattle are eating least to gain the most weight – and start actually making some breeding selections.

This will be possible with working dogs too. “We are developing a unique companion animal collar with CSIRO that can switch to satellite tracking of your animals outside the home, and we’re looking to embed other technology, such as heart rate and pulse rate for monitoring health.”

Advice to agritech startups – don’t give up

This year David will participate in the THRIVE Silicon Valley Bootcamp as part of his prize, as well as the CSIRO 2021 Accelerator Challenge and speak at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit (UK) and Animal Health Europe (2021).

“Australian startups should leverage platforms and ecosystems, such as THRIVE to enable them to accelerate their access to market, funding and build out customer relationships,” said John.

He added, “They should establish a US legal entity through the State of Delaware to ease the process of doing business and raising funding. Along with familiarising themselves with the various agriculture hubs in the US, such as Mid-West, California, etc.”

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David’s advice to other startups is, “Don’t give up, keep pushing”. He said they’d do well to mimic the resilience, tenacity and persistence found in farming.

“Challenges come from all different angles; they can be regulatory, personnel, financing, industry perception – but if you stay with it and if it’s really, truly worth the effort, then don’t give up.”

“We’re very excited about the social and environmental impact that Ceres Tag will have. If you’re earning revenue from the data like through carbon credits, you can actually start to change the profitability of your property, and that’ll have a significant social impact on money available to the community as well.”

Data sets integral to future farming

“This is the exciting thing, agriculture was always seen as this old antiquated industry and now because of the capabilities that are becoming available that are used in other industries, it’s going to change the way we look at it.

“Ultimately, we’re trying to give farmers more confidence about what they’re doing, and I foresee that you won’t be able to buy, sell or transfer an animal without having quite a substantial data set about that animal, its provenance, vaccinations, etc.

Within the next decade, these data sets will be crucial in enabling one’s ability to move livestock for biosecurity or provenance reasons, David concluded.

If you’re interested in purchasing Ceres Tag, visit their website for details from May. If you’re seeking to partner with technology or collaborate, email here.

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