Beef identification headed for high-tech future

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
Cattle operations, whether with small herds or large ones, probably will benefit from a new national animal-identification system directed through the U.S. government.

That’s just the first of many insights from Sarah Neal as a result of her membership on a Kansas Livestock Association committee working on cattle identification. She also works as part of the family at Doyle Creek Land and Cattle Co.

The movement toward cattle identification is both spurred by the discovery of a Canadian animal with mad cow disease in Washington State last December, and slowed by the tendency of federal officials to wait until after the November election.

The benefits may hold true for everyone-from the cow-calf operator or beef feedlot with hundreds or thousands of animals, down to the part-time farmer with only a few calves each year to feed out.

Veterinarians, sale-barn staff and others will be around to assist the small operator who may not be able to contract for a computer data base to suit his needs.

Purebred cattle associations, such as the American Angus Association, are preparing to help their members.

Beef producers who already employ a data base are finding it an invaluable management tool for everything from feed and genetics to pounds of production and culling.

Background of experiences

Neal has a heritage in ranching going back to her grandfather, Frank Strait, founder of the Strait Ranch, a part of the three-ranch system included in Doyle Creek. Her parents, Randy and Judy Mills, live at the original Strait Ranch near Florence.

Neal and husband Scott live on the Turkey Springs Ranch portion of Doyle Creek near Cedar Point in Chase County.

Besides working as part of the ranch family, Scott is employed as a cattle health-products salesman to veterinarians. Sarah is preparing to open an artistic novelties shop in the old auto dealership building in Florence across the street from the city offices.

Sarah once was in the same professional field as Scott. The two met on the job-she as a Kansas State graduate, and he as a Nebraska graduate.

Ask how many cows Doyle Creek Land and Cattle runs, Sarah Neal has a ready humorous reply: “Not enough cattle when the market’s up, and too many when the market’s down.”

She will say that she and the rest of the family are dedicated not just to ranching, but to be producers of healthful beef who want to see meat tracked through to being a wholesome product offered in the grocery stores.

Neal said this is an attitude all producers need to share if they wish to see beef maintain a successful market and be accepted by consumers with a high level of confidence.

Program parameters

The final identification program may be labeled as “voluntary” or “mandatory.” Either way, Neal said, producers will have to take part at some level to continue to have a market to sell to.

Producers may not want to ID cattle, but the market they sell to may not be able to take cattle without it.

“You either do it or you’re out of business,” she said.

The majority of the cattle industry-from farm and ranch producers to feedlots and packers-“wants to make the identification system happen,” and is even impatient for it to happen, she said.

The system would require placement of an electronic identification device, or EID-currently spool-shaped with 15 digits, or numbers, to read around the edges-in the ear of an animal.

A scanner rod “reads” the information from the spool to enter it into a computer.

Advantages of technology

Neal said a national system would want to know at least several things about an animal: its identity and point of origin, where it came from and where it has been.

Producers who don’t have the system at home may give their information to a staff member at the sale barn for entry.

Doyle Creek already has adapted the system to its operation. Neal said they are finding it can be a great management tool.

“Before this, we were dependent on visual ear tags,” she said. “We’d be working cattle at the chute, and I’d be writing what we were doing to each one-whether they were pregnant or not, everything about them-to type into the computer later. It was easy to make mistakes, get figures into the wrong columns, all kinds of things.”

Now, Neal takes a lap-top computer and scanner reader to the work chute, enters all previous data and new information. The animals are still “balanced out” with two ear tags to make visual identification easier, but the EID spool also is there.

The data from the lap-top is entered into the main computer when she gets home.

Information at hand

Neal and the rest of the group know immediately from the scan the following information about a particular cow:

— how old she is;

— the number of calves she has had;

— what pastures she has grazed;

— her genetics, from her dam and grand-dam to her sire;

— what bulls she has been bred to;

— whether she was checked as pregnant last time;

— her health records;

— whether problems arose last time, such as a faulty udder that needs to be checked to see if the cow should be culled.

The history of calves also is shown, but the data also can be switched in different ways. For instance, it can show the history of a pasture and how the weight gains of calves there compare to weight gains in other pastures.

“It’s just a great management tool,” Neal said again.

The Doyle Creek ranch puts its own steers through the feedyards to the slaughter plant, and this all comes back as “working information” too, she said.

They can compare feedlot gains for steers, cross-referencing them with the cows that were their mothers and their entire genetic background.

They also have the carcass information for better meat production.

The ranch heifers either are used as replacement cows at home, or are sold to other producers- with their EID in place for their future home in states that may be distant as Georgia.

Joining the movement

A producer can’t simply go to a store to buy the EID spools, she said. The Allflex products are provided through Neal’s computer service, IMI.

The company keeps a backup record of the Doyle Creek cattle. If the family has a problem in the system, IMI can help trace records back through such animal identification marks as a brand, a tattoo or a bangs number, which is the brucellosis vaccination ID.

When the national program requires premise numbers for identification, Neal said the same number probably will serve different locations within the same ranch in a limited geographic area.

But if a ranch in this area has a pasture in Oklahoma, or perhaps one even in Western Kansas, it may need to have a separate premise number.

The system probably will be expensive, and right now private industry has no money to handle it, Neal said.

Government assistance is slowed by usual processes and the election watch, and is speeded by political pressure to keep the meat supply safe, she said.

Inevitable direction

As for taking no action, Neal said, “The consumer won’t put up with it. It will cost a lot of money to be responsible for a product that is 24-hour traceable, but it has to be done. The beef industry is taking responsibility because we see that we need to make it happen.”

Neal acknowledged that some producers fear their privacy will be violated as a result of the proposed system.

“They don’t want anyone to know what they paid for cattle, or they don’t want the government looking at what they do,” she said.

In all proposals, she added, officials are interested only in the information for tracking cattle in case of a disease like mad cow or even in cases of potential bioterrorism.

It’s a system that shouldn’t be feared by producers, but welcomed, she said.

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