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Embracing ID opens doors for beef products

Clifford Mitchell Published on 28 February 2011

Challenges bestowed upon the industry made it clear that a better identification and tracking system was needed at some point.

The initial mandatory claim set off cattlemen. Accepted wisdom was to keep government out of the beef business.

Once the initial shock wore off and the mandatory moniker subsided, the ever-changing industry responded to the challenge.

Incentive-based measures often linked to normal management practices helped producers gain confidence in implementing identification (ID) programs.

“Some of the early programs that concentrated on health set a trend for animal ID.

A lot of these programs were pre-age and source, but they promoted better ID,” says Grant Keenen, director of commercial marketing programs, International Brangus Breeders Association.

“Progressive cattlemen took to ID as long as there was an incentive. Mandatory ID still leaves a sour taste,” says Doug McKinney, beef cattle value enhancement specialist, Oklahoma State University.

“Producers looking to incorporate ID have adapted through time and experience, especially if they have been pre-conditioning or backgrounding calves,” says Jim Collins, director of industry relations, Southeast Livestock Network.

Recent demands from the export market have placed an incentive on ID. Programs like this have promoted ID to the masses.

“Age and source premiums have been attractive to a lot of producers. Cattlemen realized to get the premium, every calf had to be identified,” McKinney says. “I think the premium has been a driving force.

There is no guarantee they are going to get paid for the $4 tag, but chances are pretty good.”

Cow in a squeeze

“Producers are doing the bare minimum identification, with hopes of recouping costs of doing it,” Collins says. “That EID tag is the key that opens the door into other markets.”

Although ID has certainly become a mainstay for some operations, others believe the industry faces certain challenges for this management protocol.

The regional nature of the beef business makes it impossible to have “cookie-cutter” scenarios.

“There is a much larger group of cattle individually identified today than there used to be. It can be debated if it is a widely grasped concept,” Keenen says. “In certain areas it is highly saturated because cattlemen, for various reasons, have greater access to the herd.

Some areas face limiting factors due to logistics or the ability to retain calves when they are weaned.”

Identification is nothing new. The level of sophistication may have changed from the old days where the hot iron was the law of the land. Today, many forms of ID take place. Creating the data trail is still a goal for individual ID.

“Early on, a lot of operators were intimidated by this form of ID. Applying the EID tag in its basic format allows operators to get that calf through the marketing channel,” Collins says.

Oklahoma Quality Beef Network ear tag

“We have operators that still use the red book and a pencil, while others, who have very basic records, use EID as a means to move data forward.”

“Cattlemen are taking more of a proactive approach to ID. Oklahoma Quality Beef Network (OQBN) is designed for the smaller producer without a load lot,” McKinney says.

“In our program, the smaller producer has the same opportunity as the larger rancher because the management is all the same. Most ID cattle to help facilitate information exchange.”

Marketing calves is an art form. Some outfits have turned into really good used car salesmen providing all the “bells and whistles” with the product.

This may sound amusing, but the fact is some operators have seized the opportunity and even in a good market should reap rewards.

“In the job market, the more credentials you have, the better off you are. The more information you have on your calf crop, the more programs you are eligible for,” Keenen says.

“No matter what market you target. Retained ownership, sell them off the ranch or looking to satisfy an all natural or NHTC (non-hormone treated cattle) program; EID allows operators the capability to transfer data.”

“When cattle are commingled and sold in the country, it gives neighbors an opportunity to work together.

Producers simply putting in the EID tag gain access to profit margin,” Collins says. “EID helps transfer the story.

As producers grasp ID, more marketing channels like video sales or traditional sale barns have a story that can be transferred to the buyer.”

“ID is a good piece of the pie to help producers create a reputation. The more you do, your calves should be worth more,”

Cattle with ear tags

McKinney says. “There is incentive for better ID programs, but some producers haven’t reached that point yet. Producers who take the first step usually see the benefits.”

In most cases where ID has been accepted, it just falls into the management program as the next logical step. Producers debate the impact stepping up to a new level of information management will have on the operation.

“I see some who are reborn and have a whole new energy. Most are improving their operations without changing too much.

Once operators get management in the system, the mentality changes,” McKinney says. “Producers usually start by giving vaccinations or weaning calves, then there is a domino effect.

Calf weights are better and cow herd health improves. Each year they are willing to take one extra step if there is an incentive.”

“Producers have more on-farm and chute-side capabilities to manage data now than ever before. In many cases, it’s not that producers have to do anything more to adapt to this system, they just need to get organized,”

Collins says. “An ID system can be as sophisticated or as simple as a producer wants it to be.”

Capturing market incentives has certainly helped bring ID to the forefront for some operations. Record-keeping systems have evolved to match resource capability from a producer standpoint.

“Record keeping is hard to teach. About 75 percent of our producers keep some form of records. EID has helped better manage some herds,”

McKinney says. “Some operations have tag readers and can see the history. They have everything linked to the system. The ID system helps make record keeping easier, but it’s still a challenge. There are a lot of handwritten records that get entered into the system later. The EID tag is an avenue for better records and it seems to be working.”

Many benefits should come as producers embrace ID. These paybacks may not be written in stone, but identified through better management practices.

The ability to know costs and revenues should help refine management. Increased production costs place a premium on information at the ranch level to make day-to-day decisions.

“Input costs may push producers to ID so they can have the opportunity to market cattle though many different channels. Some producers are keeping heifers and using an EID tag as a secondary form of identification.

When she comes back through the chute, producers have a record,” Collins says. “I think some of the unidentified benefits, because producers have information coupled with market access, are driving the bus for animal ID.”

“Higher input costs have definitely helped put things into perspective. Producers need to know things like birth rates and weaning rates,” Keenen says.

“Through better record keeping, some things have come about. It is easier for producers to track profit indicators like pounds of weaned calf per cow exposed.”

Ideas sometimes spread enthusiasm. Progressive producers, who are always seeking to move forward, are almost like a NASCAR junkie feeling the need for speed.

ID incentives, to this point, have been based solely on export markets. Domestic housewives will demand more information as time goes on and the economy recovers.

“Our export market is growing by double-digit percentages. There are not enough age and source cattle to meet the current demand,” McKinney says. “I am starting to see the American consumer demanding age and source verification.”

“Domestic inquisitive minds want this information. Down the road, housewives are going to want to know how green it is,” Keenen says. “Producers will have to use an ID system and rely on one of the verification programs.”

“As an industry, we have made exponential strides developing a production system that can deliver specification cattle to domestic or export markets,” Collins says. “We have to use an ID system to develop this information to share with our consumers.”

Cattlemen come from a long line of independent operators, taking the necessary steps to secure survival and make the most of every opportunity. Cow/calf operators face a rigorous lifestyle where some mornings are not as glamorous as others. A “pride factor” translates a sense of ethics and morals that will protect a way of life through adversity.

“I have no doubt ID is another tool producers have available to make sure we do our part in passing on a wholesome product that is in demand,” Collins says. “Managing information helps producers know they have checked all the boxes when they pass on the product to the next operation.”

“Taking the initiative and pride in ownership go a long way to make sure cattle perform at the next level,” McKinney says. “I have no doubt national ID will take care of itself, because I have seen greater acceptance by many producers over the last three years.”   end_mark


TOP: Some producers are using EID as a secondary form of ID. Cattlemen with the capability to handle information are using the system to track important profit indicators like pounds of weaned calf per cow exposed. Recordkeeping systems can be customized for each operation. Operators can make these systems sophisticated or simple based on specific needs. Photo courtesy SE Livestock Network.

SECOND: The Oklahoma Quality Beef Network was designed to help smaller producers gain market advantages through commingled sales. Other benefits of identification include better record keeping and the ability to know cow costs for each operation. Market-based incentives have encouraged producers to embrace ID. Photo courtesy Oklahoma Quality Beef Network

THIRD: Identification has been used by commercial cow-calf operators to capture age and source premiums. Photo courtesy International Brangus Breeders Association.

FOURTH: Experts think input costs may push producers to ID so they can have the opportunity to market cattle through many different channels. Photo courtesy SE Livestock Network.