Review: Animal Handling Donalds iStick 3 EID Reader

By: Brent Lilley, Photography by: Brent Lilley

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When Brent Lilley was given the task of finding a test for this month’s animal handling feature, the first thing that came to his mind was to test an Electronic Identification (EID) tag reader – not only because they’re a great tool but very topical too.

Review: Animal Handling Donalds iStick 3 EID Reader
Animal Handling: Donalds iStick 3 EID Reader

There are now several different companies offering EID tag readers and I'm the first to confess that I haven't had much to do with any of them, but with hundreds of cattle on the farm at home needing EID tags, it was time I investigated the market.

For this month's feature, I got hold of a Donalds iStick 3 tag reader from Te Pari Products. Already owning a set of Iconix FX41 scales and load bars from by Te Pari, the Donalds iStick 3 reader was the natural starting point, although the Iconix scales will also work with many other tag readers on the market.

Construction

The reader itself is a 60cm-long stick, with a hand grip at one end, a display screen with an operation button in the middle and a tube that contains the tag scanner at the other end.

Cattle and sheep yards with dust, mud and rain aren't the greatest environment for electronic equipment, but the iStick 3 has the electronics and rechargeable battery enclosed in a sturdy, sealed, moulded plastic case. This is not only great for storage and transport but also for keeping all the cords, chargers, adaptors and instruction manual in one place.

It appears very robust and although I don't recommend trying this at home, a salesman from Te Pari demonstrated the toughness by dropping the iStick 3 from head height onto the ground a couple of times. He then picked it up and scanned a tag to prove that it could handle the hard knocks - I certainly believed him after that.

The iStick 3 comes with a Bluetooth end cap capable of sending data wirelessly to other Bluetooth-equipped devices, such as scales, a PDA or computer.

Operation

The basic operation is pretty simple and straightforward, as there is only one button on the reader. You push this button once to turn it on and then once more to start searching for a tag. Simply wave the end of the stick within about 20cm of an EID tag. It will let you know it has read the tag by flashing a green LED light on the end of the stick, as well as a blue light flashing near the screen. It will then display the unique ID number from the EID tag on the screen and store it in the memory. Push the button again and it will start to search for the next tag.

Having a single button above the hand grip to control the reader is great, as it is simple and there are no other buttons to push by mistake. But when it comes to accessing the menu or scrolling though stored tag numbers, I personally found it a little tedious and confusing. You have to push the button twice quickly to enter the menu, then once to scroll through the options displayed on the screen. Holding the button down briefly will select an option to change it, then push the button once again to scroll to the desired setting. Although I did get used to this system the more I used the iStick, I did wonder if having a couple of extra buttons somewhere away from the main button would make it more user-friendly.

The iStick 3 memory is capable of storing 5000 tags and can organise them with a time and date stamp and in separate groups. You can scroll through these stored numbers on the screen to see what you have.

Some other handy features that can be turned on or off in the menu include a continuous read for scanning a pen or race full of animals without having to keep pushing the button; a no duplicate ID function; and a ID tally counter to ensure animals aren't scanned twice or missed.

A high power setting means tags can be scanned at a greater distance, but I found I preferred to use it on low power. This requires you to be nearer the animal but it also ensures you scan the one you want rather than picking up other cattle by mistake.

Connectivity

The ability to connect wirelessly to other devices with Bluetooth is another selling point. All that was required for information to be sent between my Iconix FX41 scales and the tag reader was a Bluetooth adapter for the scales.

Even if you are only planning to use the iStick 3 to scan tag numbers, the Bluetooth function is still quite handy as it can connect the reader to your computer, so the tag numbers stored in its memory can be downloaded and submitted online to meet NAIT requirements when buying and selling cattle privately, without the need to manually record and transfer lots of lengthy ID numbers.

If you want to maximise the return of putting EID tags on your animals, this is how you'll do it. The iStick can read the tag number of the animal and then send the number though to the scales, which will store the time, date, tag number, a group number, cross-reference number (such as the AHB tag number) and the weight of the animal. These details can all be downloaded or retrieved at a later date. Information for individual animals can be matched up next time you weigh the animals and will be invaluable for the management of animal health and weight gain.

The test

To test out the iStick 3, I decided to scan the ear tags and record the weights of a mob of beef cattle, using both the iStick 3 and a Iconix FX41 set of scales.

Setting up the scales and the iStick to communicate with each other using the Bluetooth connection did prove a little tricky to begin with. You need to scroll through a long menu on the scales and there are quite a few options to turn on the Bluetooth connectivity, set up what you want to happen when the scales receive an EID number and also configure them to what brand of tag reader you are using.

With the scales set up, a similar type of setting process lies for the tag reader and then set it to scan and seek out a Bluetooth connection with the scales. This process wasn't that easy to do the first time round but it does get easier once you have been through it a few times. With the scales and the reader paired and agreeing with each other, I was ready to go.

Having the load bars for the scales under a Te Pari Cattle Master Crush at the end of a decent length race meant the cattle could be brought up the race and penned individually in the crush for weighing. With one push of the button on the tag reader, it started searching and the ear tags were scanned and read. Once the tag reader beeped and the light flashed green, letting me know it had found a tag, it displayed the number on the screen, stored it in its own memory and also sent it to the scales.The scales displayed the weight and EID tag number on the screen and stored the details.

This was a relatively quick and easy process, with no need to push any buttons on the scales and it does away with scribbling down weights on a piece of paper.

Later on when the cattle were back in their paddock on a fresh break getting stuck into some silage, I was inside sheltering from the weather and connecting the scales to my computer with a link kit supplied by Te Pari. I downloaded the data which could then be transferred to any livestock management program, such as Minda or programs like Excel and Word, to be saved and printed out.

The manufacturer says

The powerful and portable iStick reader from Donalds has been developed for use in harsh environments, including stockyards, sales yards and abattoirs. It will work with HDX and FDX-B EID tags and with its very rugged IP67 design, it is the right portable EID reader for daily work under extreme conditions.

The iStick tag reader offers unique features, such as dual power mode, additional read LED light at the tip and bidirectional communication via Bluetooth. This model has an additional Class 1 Bluetooth interface for wireless communication with weigh scales and PDAs. In addition, the innovative 'permanent read' mode saves the operator from pushing the button each time a read is required. This feature is ideal for loading or handling large numbers of stock.

Also available is an easy Quick Start Guide for those new to the system. For ongoing assistance, Te Pari offers customer and technical support too.

Verdict

The iStick 3 worked well for me. The basic task of scanning EID tags and recording the numbers was easily accomplished: you basically pick the reader up, push the button and go. I believe the real benefits of owning a tag reader like the iStick come from using it in combination with your scales, matching individual EID numbers to weights when weighing a group of animals. Given that all stock now need to have an EID tag, farmers should take advantage of this traceability tool to monitor animal health and growth rates to maximise profit.

The part I found most tricky and a little frustrating was setting the iStick up to communicate wirelessly with the scales and other devices, but I'm more at home driving a tractor than a computer. Once this is set up and working, it is a great tag reader, with no any cords to get tangled up in. Having all the data stored in one place on the scales makes it easier to retrieve later.

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