Because cow-calf producers are the first player in the beef-supply chain, their priorities and concerns in the design of a national, individual animal traceability system are critical. Learning more about those attitudes was the purpose of an MSU study initiated in November 2007. A total of 2,000 surveys were mailed to cow-calf producers throughout the U.S. who are BEEF readers. A total of 655 usable surveys (32.78%) were returned.

As a bulwark against animal-disease outbreaks, USDA wants to build a nationwide beef traceability system (National Animal Identification System — NAIS) for quick and effective response to animal-health emergencies. In addition to national health concerns, such traceability may also give producers additional management and marketing alternatives for their calves. Meanwhile, food firms can differentiate their products and provide consumers with extra quality and safety assurances.

The survey included questions on various aspects of cow-calf production, including demographics, current production and technology practices, and perceptions concerning traceability and system attributes. Of respondents, 93% were male, with the average being 58 years. More than 65% have raised cattle for more than 30 years, and more than 34% expect to be raising cattle for more than 30 years.

Household income was evenly dispersed from less than $25,000 to $125,000 or more, with more than 45% of respondents indicating that household income from off-farm sources was less than 20%. For the 2007 calendar year, 60.91% of the operations reported having fewer than 200 beef cows calve. The average surveyed operation's 2007 sales were 173 calves, 216 yearlings and 441 finished cattle.

More than 48% of producers indicated they used local auctions for marketing their cattle. And plastic ear tags were cited as the most common form of ID (87.89%), with branding second (58.63%), and radio-frequency ID (RFID) being the least used at 9.18%. Among respondents, 44% had registered their premise with the USDA in NAIS.

Two core questions

Producers were asked to indicate their priorities and concerns in the design of a national, individual animal traceability system.

In response to the question, “In designing a national, individual animal traceability system, how important are the following issues in the U.S. beef industry?” (Table 1), respondents indicated the most important issues were monitoring/managing disease and increasing consumer confidence. More than 75% of producers ranked these as important or very important.

Table 1. Importance of issues when designing a national beef traceability system
Table 1. Importance of issues when designing a national beef traceability system
Select table to enlarge

Enhancing marketability, maintaining current foreign markets, accessing foreign markets, improving on-farm management and managing the supply chain all were seen as important, said more than half of respondents. This shows producers are dually concerned with disease implications and marketability of their beef when considering the design of a traceability system.

  • Younger producers of higher education, with more active membership in farm organizations, and premises registered under NAIS saw greater importance for monitoring/managing disease in designing a national, individual animal traceability system.

  • Meanwhile, younger producers in the Southeast (AL, AR, FL, GA, KY, LA, MS, NC, SC, TN, VA and WV), not using local auctions with registered NAIS premises saw greater importance for increasing consumer confidence.

  • Younger producers not using local auctions to market their cattle, and operations with registered NAIS premises, saw greater importance for enhancing marketability.

    Similar results to the importance for enhancing marketability were found for the importance of maintaining current foreign markets.

  • Producers with higher education, more years of experience and not using local auctions saw greater importance for accessing foreign markets.

  • Second core question

    Cow-calf operators of larger operations were more likely to see the importance of improving on-farm management in program design. Producers of larger operations that produce a lower proportion of their own feed saw greater importance for managing the supply chain. Finally, operators with registered NAIS premises saw greater importance for enhancing food safety.

Producers with their premises registered in NAIS were:

  • 11.6% more likely to respond that traceability is very important for monitoring/managing disease,

  • 7.8% more likely to respond that traceability is very important for increasing consumer confidence,

  • 8% more likely to respond that traceability is very important for enhancing marketability,

  • 7.1% more likely to respond that traceability is very important for maintaining current foreign markets, and

  • 11.5% more likely to respond that traceability is very important for enhancing food safety.

Each additional membership in a farm organization caused producers to be 3% more likely to respond that traceability is very important for monitoring/managing disease.

Southeast producers were 24% more likely than producers in the base region (Northern Crescent states) of CT, MA, MD, ME, MN, NH, NJ, PA, RI, VT and WI to respond that traceability is very important for increasing consumer confidence. For every five years of additional experience, producers were 2.8% more likely to respond that traceability is very important for accessing foreign markets.

As the size of the operation increases, operators were more likely to respond that traceability is very important for improving on-farm management.

The second core question examined was: “In designing a national, individual animal traceability system, how concerned are you regarding the following issues in the U.S. beef industry?” (Table 2).

Table 2. Concerns when designing a national beef traceability system
Table 2. Concerns when designing a national beef traceability system
Select table to enlarge

Results show producers' concerns of implementation of traceability systems were highest over cost (81.43%), liability (78.01%), reliability of technology (75.04%), failure of system to meet stated goals (73.83%), confidentiality of information (71.42%) and non-participating firms benefiting (60.45%).

Younger producers were more likely to be very concerned with these issues in designing a national, individual animal traceability system. Producers with more years of experience in larger operations that produce a larger proportion of their own feed were more likely to view cost to the participating producer as a main concern.

Wary and nervous

Meanwhile, producers with more years of experience, whose primary source of income is from the farm operation, and hire a lower proportion of labor, were more likely to view confidentiality of information as a top concern in program design.

Operators outside the Northern Crescent and the Corn Belt (IA, IL, IN and MO) with more years of experience, a higher level of income, and larger operations that produce a larger proportion of their own feed, were more likely to indicate reliability of technology is a major concern in designing a national individual-animal traceability system.

Producers in the Northern Plains (KS, NE, ND, and SD), Southeast and Southern Plains (OK and TX) with more years of experience with larger operations that produce a larger proportion of their own feed, revealed heightened concern over the liability to the participating producer a traceability system brings. Producers with more years of experience with larger operations that produce a larger proportion of their own feed were more likely to view non-participating firms benefiting from implemented traceability systems as a key concern.

Finally, cow-calf producers in the Northern Plains, Northwest (AZ, CA, CO, ID, MT, NM, NV, OR, UT, WA and WY), Southeast and Southern Plains with more years of experience in operations that produce a larger proportion of their own feed were more likely to be very concerned with the failure of a traceability system to meet stated goals.

For every five years of additional experience, producers were:

  • 4.5% more likely to be very concerned with cost to the participating producers,

  • 6.7% more likely to be very concerned with confidentiality of information,

  • 4.4% more likely to be very concerned with the reliability of technology,

  • 5% more likely to be very concerned with liability to the participating producer,

  • 3.6% more likely to be very concerned with non-participating firms benefiting, and

  • 3.8% more likely to be very concerned with the failure of a traceability system to meet stated goals.

Producers in the Northern Plains were:

  • 20% more likely than producers in the base region (Northern Crescent) to be concerned with the reliability of technology,

  • 15.8% more likely to be concerned with the liability to the participating producer, and

  • 18.3% more likely to be concerned with the failure of a traceability system to meet stated goals.

Increasing the proportion of feed/forage needs that an operation produced on their own farm by 25% was associated with a:

  • 5.4% increase in odds of being very concerned with cost of a traceability system,

  • 3.7% higher likelihood of being concerned about the reliability of traceability technology,

  • 3.6% higher likelihood of being concerned about the liability a traceability system presents to the participating producer,

  • 3.2% higher likelihood of being concerned about non-participating firms benefiting, and

  • 4.6% higher likelihood of being very concerned with the failure of a traceability system to meet stated goals.

Lee Schulz is graduate student, and Glynn Tonsor is a faculty member, in MSU's Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics.

Overall, respondents exhibited wariness about the ramifications of a national individual animal traceability system.

Participants were asked this question: “If individual animal traceability systems were put in place, how do you think the resulting benefits and costs would be distributed through the beef industry's supply chain?” Respondents allocated the benefits this way among the sectors: retailers, 34.38%; processors, 26.56%; feedlot producers, 18.92%, and cow-calf producers, 19.80%.

Meanwhile, respondents allocated the costs this way: retailers, 11.22%; processors, 12.40%; feedlot producers, 18.71%, and cow-calf producers, 58.36%.

  • A total of 45% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that individual animal traceability systems are “more cost effective for larger cow-calf operations.”

  • More than 62% agreed or strongly agreed that an individual animal traceability system would “result in more liability for cow-calf producers than cattle owners at other stages of production.”

  • About 48% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that an individual animal traceability system “is unnecessary if country-of-origin labeling (COOL) was implemented nationally.”

  • And 46% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that an individual animal traceability system “as a mandated system is exaggerated in need.”

  • When asked if they thought NAIS should be a mandatory system requiring all U.S. cattle producers to participate, 21.22% of respondents said yes, 50.32% said no, and 28.46% were undecided.