Watch the video interview with Bill Mies here.

If you bought a new pickup in 1965, you got the best technology Detroit had to offer – an AM radio and 2x2 air conditioning; that is, two windows and two hand cranks to roll ’em down with. Buy a new pickup today and it’s like climbing into the cockpit of an airplane.

Times, to put it mildly, have changed – at least as far as pickups are concerned. But what about some of the tools cattlemen use to determine markets? “Are those tools, those things we do, still valid? Are they still tools we need in the modern times we live in today?” asks Bill Mies.

Truth is, cattlemen are still driving 1965 pickups, figuratively speaking, while trying to keep pace in a crew cab, XM radio and GPS-guided world, Mies says. BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly continues its series this week featuring Mies, a former feedyard manager, professor emeritus in feedyard management at Texas A&M University, and one of the industry’s preeminent thinkers.

In this series, Mies examines aspects of the modern beef business that, in his opinion, need updating. Last week, he dealt with cattle futures; this week, he turns his thoughts to the Cattle on Feed report. Next week, he’ll address the beef checkoff.

Cattle on Feed Report

“We still try to determine our supply by counting the number of head in the feedyard each month, grouping them by weights, and trying to guesstimate when we’re going to sell them, what weight they’re going to be coming out, and what the tonnage is going to look like,” Mies says.

That worked fine when everything was sold at 1,050 lbs. “If we knew how many were in the feedyard, multiply that by 1,050 and that was the tonnage we were going to sell to the packer.” Factor in the dressing percent and you knew how much tonnage was going to the retailer.

Today, outweights can vary widely, depending on market conditions. While technology has sped up the velocity of that data, the numbers haven’t changed. “We’re just a step ahead of the ol’ boy sitting on a horse with a tally book, counting them into the pens after they’d driven them up the trail from Texas. And we’re trying to run a multi-billion-dollar business, forecasting our production, with that data.”

So, Mies proposes this mind- and paradigm-bending idea – using satellites with heat-sensing capability to monitor the location and weight of cattle on feed.

The idea is not as far-fetched as many might think, he says. The satellites are up there right now, the technology is proven and in place, and it can be utilized with not much more than a flip of a switch. And depending on what the industry is willing to pay, those satellites can generate a picture with enough resolution to count the whiskers on a steer’s muzzle. Mies knows of what he speaks, because he’s seen it demonstrated.

Can the industry afford that? “I have no idea,” he admits. But he thinks it’s worth investigating. However, given the current budget-cutting mood in Washington, he doesn’t think any publically funded research money will be available.

“Maybe this is a place for the cattle industry to come together and see if we can do it for ourselves,” he says, realizing that the thought of a satellite flying over somebody’s ranch or feedlot and counting cattle will cause some concern, to say the least. “But with the technology that exists today, using a Big Chief tablet and No. 2 lead pencil, trying to figure out what kind of tonnage we’ve got, is something that belongs in the 1880s, not 2011.”

Next week: The beef checkoff. Read Part 1 on cattle futures here.