Tracking group information has been with the beef industry for as long as documented records can trace. Trail bosses had to have some way of telling potential buyers the number of head for sale when they hit the railhead in places like Dodge City or Abilene, Kansas. These groups were often identified by the brands they held that signified who they belonged to when the drive was formed until ownership was transferred.
This form of record keeping may seem somewhat prehistoric in its approach, but believe it or not, a lot of producers rely on the same sort of group management to market livestock today. Group data has been a standing tradition for livestock producers. One brand, one pasture and they went to market on this date. As the industry transformed and improvements were made in transportation systems, the dynamics of record keeping had to change for most producers. The idea of focusing on the individual evolved when producers wanted to pinpoint areas of profit or loss to help make management changes.
Some of the industry is still at odds with this form of individual ID. Cattlemen who take advantage of current systems may not be receiving maximum benefit due to inefficiencies or errors. Producers have been overrun by the concept of data and managing this all important information in the 21st Century beef industry. Fact is without it, profits are being squandered and improvements are minimized.
“Producers who want to know something about their cattle have to participate in some form of individual ID program. We have struggled to get these programs implemented because many producers don't know where to begin. Either brand or put in a hanging tag and start writing down things like calving dates, vaccination schedules and preg checks,” says Dr. Joe Paschal, Texas Livestock Extension, Corpus Christi, Texas.
The basic system of individual ID can be manipulated to best fit the operation. Each firm must decide how the information could be best used in the current management scenario and adapt the system to match the resources available to the operation.
“The door is wide open to individual ID at the ranch level,” Paschal says. “The important thing is for producers to identify their animals and start collecting data. Individual ID is a very useful tool for producers seeking information that will help facilitate management decisions.”
“Some sort of information system is critical to make things happen. We try to train our customers to create some kind of database that matches a brand, tag, electronic identification or all three depending on the level they are at,” says Joe Fuller, VP Marketing & Customer Service, Camp Cooley Ranch, Franklin, Texas. Camp Cooley is a large seedstock provider marketing Angus, Brangus and Charolais genetics.
There were many qualifications to gain the title of “trail boss.” Obviously reading and writing at the top of the list. Who else was going to keep track of herd numbers during the journey, accurately negotiate the sale and transfer ownership. Today, the level of literacy may involve some sort of familiarity with computer systems. Although, due to the current marketing system, the computer may never replace hand written records, just enhance this data.
“We encourage our customers, who track their product and maintain data, to get involved with some sort of Process Verified Program. This will help them maximize earning potential on every calf they send to market,” Fuller says. “It is critical that they take that next step. Some sort of computerized data system will help in that process.”
“No doubt some form of electronic ID will help make record keeping easier. This is often a technology leap for most cattlemen, but there are software programs available to help make this transition easier,” Paschal says. “Written records go hand-in-hand with computer records. Some distrust the technology, but when they start receiving premiums at the market place, they can't afford not to ID their cattle.”
“To get started with our program producers must have some sort of individual ID, whether it's a brand, tag or electronic ID and a date of birth or estimated date of birth. A good place to start, for most producers, is with their current inventory. Then customize records to best fit the operation,” says Penny Miller, Cattlesoft Co., College Station, Texas.
Cattlemax software, by Cattlesoft is being used by ranchers in 49 states and 28 foreign countries. A free trial can be downloaded from the website or mailed directly. A one-time cost based on operation size gets producers started. Free updates are provided and low cost upgrades can be purchased as improvements are made to the software. Basic PC equipment, including Windows
95, is needed to operate the system.
Every cattleman has certain beliefs. It is often this system of checks and balances that makes new ideas so hard to take shape. As the market system demands more information and is willing to pay for it, cattlemen are stepping away from tradition to look for systems that will make their operations more efficient. Many software programs are available that give producers more data management options.
“We developed Cattlemax software to be a user-friendly record keeping solution for cattlemen to keep individual records and have all the data stored in a central location. We have packages that will fit any size herd, it's not just limited to larger operations,” Miller says. “Cattlemax has very flexible reporting options. Producers can work with preset reports or customized information that is important to each specific herd.”
“When you have registered pedigreed livestock it is critical to have data to prove your genetics. It has to be accurate, you have to have a lot of it and it has to be readily available,” Fuller says. “We have a great data department here at Camp Cooley and we can access whatever information we need to know very rapidly.”
Electronic data systems offer many options to cattlemen as they try to identify management and marketing options. Most programs offer different options to users ranging from the most basic to technical applications.
“Records, in this form, could be as simple as the group we vaccinated today or producers could make a spread sheet to look at any kind of numbers they want to,” Paschal says. “Some sort of electronic sorting can facilitate whatever form of management a producer needs to do. Data can be collected and analyzed in a variety of ways from many different angles. Hand written records are good, but they limit the ways producers can evaluate them to an ear tag or weight.”
“Our software is easy to update. If you have a group of cattle that are receiving the same medical treatment you can select those individuals and make the update all at once,” Miller says. “This helps minimize data entry and hopefully we have items in place that will help eliminate errors.”
Electronic sorting of data not only helps management see things more clearly, but could offer advantages to customers. This has been adapted by several breed associations and seedstock outfits to help potential customers find animals that best fit current production standards.
“It is our job as seedstock producers to provide continued education to our customers. This will help them make better buying decisions. It is important our bull customers trust our data and we maintain its integrity. It is more important than ever for us to distinguish the top end of our offering,” Fuller says. “Prior to our annual sale we provide an option on our web site that allows our customers to sort the offering based on the data we have collected. Customers can identify bulls with the specific traits they are looking for and not have to evaluate the whole offering.”
Organizing data provides many opportunities to breeders. Data management can help identify strong points or weak links in the operation. In the era of least cost producers, knowing which cow is open or a weaning weight could change the bottom line significantly.
“When producers input records into some form of data management system they can identify the most productive cows or least productive cows,” Paschal says. “There are many programs out there that will pay premiums if producers can document data.”
“Flexibility is important to producers. Cattlemax offers producers options, categories can be renamed to customize information needed to perform specific management tasks,” Miller says. “The software offers different filtering options so producers can identify cattle that meet that feature. It could be something as simple as knowing which cows are open or what pasture they are in.”
Many producers have been confused by the recent mandatory ID program. The fact the initiative failed and became a voluntary system has led some producers to believe on-farm tracking systems will not work in their herds. Real-time data will not only show up in the profit-loss column, but will help make better management decisions.
“National ID wouldn't work because they tried to implement the system at market speed,” Paschal says. “There are definitely folks out there who work cattle one at time or load one at a time. Most are comfortable with a hang tag, pencil and tablet. Some sort of ID and writing information down is the first step. Companies will find a way to help implement data base management. Whether it's providing tags or software to help make sure it's done right the first time.”
As producers learn more about each component of their data management program and allied industry gets in check with the needs of the producers, electronic ID could become a very important tool. This form of data management eliminates certain steps in the recording process.
“It was a disservice to producers the negative impressions national ID gave to electronic identification. There are programs available that aren't cost prohibitive to any operation, whether a producer has 25 head or 10,000 head,” Paschal says. “Electronic ID will help reduce error rate and facilitate information. The ID tag could reflect the breed registration number which could eliminate writing or hand entering a lot of information. Improved accuracy will help managers make better breeding decisions and reduce errors in selection. ”
“We have been participating in an EID pilot program and have seen the benefits of this form of identification. Our goal by 2008 is to have fully implemented the EID system with chute side communication,” Fuller says. “This will cut down on data entry time and improve our efficiency. Hopefully, this will eliminate errors in hand written records and make the data more accurate through a direct transmission.”
“Cattlemax is compatible with several different wand readers and transmission devices. We try to work with brands that are compatible with our customers and they've had success with,” Miller says. “This equipment is important for ranchers to have. It will help the manage data more efficiently and accurately.”
Often to get widespread use of something new, implementation travels by word of mouth. Cattlemen sometimes seem isolated, but most are willing to exchange information when asked. Producers look at successful or unsuccessful ventures as guidelines to improve their operations. Taking advantage of opportunities that allow good things to happen often distinguishes top firms from their counterparts in the beef business.
Identification systems are nothing new to the industry. However, just like other profit harboring changes, have been slow to adapt. This form of tracking and technology brings apprehension to some producers. In-herd ID has proven its benefits will outweigh the negatives when producers use information to help to add value.
“By not keeping track of records it's definitely tough to make herd improvement decisions. Today's industry is more competitive than ever and producers have to set themselves apart,” Miller says. “A lot of ranchers who contact us are very new to computers. We try to relay our software fits around any management practices and works with the production cycle. To make improvements to our system, we rely on customer feedback. Producers ranging from five head operations to 10,000 head operations are taking advantage of our software.”
“We need to get the smaller producers involved, because if they start IDing cattle then everyone will be doing it. At this point in time, some ranches that have the capability to manage data aren't taking full advantage of the program,” Paschal says. “It will not be enough to ride and rope cattle anymore. Cowboys are responsible for a lot of cattle and will have to have some computer knowledge because it is a labor saving device. I don't think it will take people as long to grasp the concept of in-herd ID because there are dollars available for those who are willing to take the opportunity.”