One of the first questions Harlan Hughes asks producers is: Are you collecting data or information? Hughes is a farm business management guru and monthly "Market Advisor" columnist for BEEF.

"Data are just raw numbers collected in some fashion. Information, on the other hand, is data that is used to make management decisions," he says.

Hughes believes most ranchers collect data but fail to convert it into information. Computers make that transition much easier.

"One of the key benefits of computerized records is that data can be sorted in so many different ways," Hughes says.

David Lalman, Oklahoma State University (OSU) Extension beef specialist, agrees. He uses "queries" to rapidly sort through records in a number of different ways. "You just can't do that if they're in written form," Lalman says.

An example is sorting records for all two-year-old cows that weaned calves at 50% of their bodyweight.

Sorting cowherd records was useful to Lalman and OSU researchers last year, when drought forced them to cull cows.

"That's the time to know the cows that are highly productive, very efficient, have short calving intervals, never miss a calf, and so on," he says.

But before producers can get to the stage of running queries and year-end-analysis, the basics of recordkeeping must be done.

Recordkeeping 101. Data collection for computerized herd records works just like any other database -- animals must have a unique identifying number or tag to attach data to.

"If you're going to have individual animal ID, you might as well utilize that information to improve your cowherd," says Lalman. "That's what herd management software can do for you."

Kris Ringwall, a beef specialist at North Dakota State University's Dickinson Research and Extension Center and point person for the Cow Herd Appraisal Performance System (CHAPS), estimates that only 5% of producers have a recordkeeping system tied to individual cow ID, even though 60-70% of calves and most cows are tagged in the U.S. He bases this off of the National Animal Health Monitoring Service (NAHMS) study conducted 10 years ago. The 2007-08 NAHMS study gets underway this fall.

"I refer to most of them as 'earrings' because they really aren't doing anything with the tags," Ringwall says. "If you want some real information on change, you've got to look at the individual animal."

In order to do that, Ringwall and Lalman say it's crucial to determine herd inventory. By doing so, reproduction can be better gauged by knowing how many cows are open, bred and exposed.

"It's just like a store; you can't manage a store without knowing what your inventory is."

Perpetual inventory paints a picture about the operation, such as replacement and culling percentage, and if the herd is stable or increasing in size. This naturally brings up such questions as stocking rates and wintering numbers, or what Ringwall calls "the details."

"Successful cattle operations deal in detail, and it's those details that answer questions," Ringwall says. Hughes confirms that high-profit managers pay attention to details.

What to collect. Producers can collect a plethora of information, and commercially available herd management software is designed to accommodate every detail.

"It's almost overwhelming for most people to start out by importing every bit of data they've got into a new software package," Lalman says. He suggests producers begin with their current calving information, such as ID, birth date and sire (if known).

Ringwall boils it down to collecting: birth date, cow number, calf number, and calf weight in the fall (weaning). A stumbling block to producers is birthweight. If they aren't collecting it, they think they can't keep individual herd records.

"Birthweight is never required," Ringwall says, but it can be another data point. He cautions that data points can get out of hand when producers set their expectations too high wanting to know, "what pasture this calf was in in June?" or "what did this calf weigh after one type of grass before I moved him to another type of grass?"

Ringwall says CHAPS and other programs will allow producers to do a lot of that tracking, but these are intermediate measurements.

"You've got to remember not to get so bogged down in the details," he explains. "Records can't interfere with your day-to-day processes because they have to co-exist."

Choosing new software. After receiving numerous phone calls inquiring about herd record software, OSU researchers compiled data on eight commercially available software programs to aid producers in selecting a herd management program right for them. The report provides extensive detail on each software program in regard to: cow, sire, calf and herd information, along with computer requirements and additional considerations. To view the March 2007 report, visit: pods.dasnr.okstate.edu/docushare/dsweb/Get/Document-1926/CR-3279web.pdf.

Most software programs studied need a Windows 95 Operating System or newer, with the exception of Red Wing Cow/Calf and Cow Sense programs, which require Windows 98 or newer versions. Minimum RAM (random access memory, or data storage space) needed for programs is 16 megabytes (MB), with 10 MB of hard disk space available.

Software costs range from $75 on the low end, to $695 on the high end, varying among commercial, seedstock and herd size. Ringwall notes that the CHAPS program has a one-time cost range of $30-$80.

"If available, start with the simple version of the software," Lalman suggests, noting that most companies allow upgrades to more complex versions.

It's also important to consider support availability and cost of each software program. This acts as a users' helpline in terms of understanding how the software works. Help is offered in a variety of ways, including phone, e-mail, Web-based and workshops.

OSU researchers conclude that every cow-calf producer must determine how much time to devote to practical recordkeeping and weigh this commitment against software costs, data entry features and desired summary reports.

Once software is chosen, producers should identify who will be responsible to operate it. Lalman says the best candidate is someone who is detail-orientated and comfortable with a computer.

"It's not going to be the guy who rushes from one project to the next," Lalman says. "It won't get done. And it won't get done accurately. If it isn't accurate, it isn't useful, and can actually be misleading."

Data also needs to be consistent, such as recording cow weights at the same time each year for year-to-year comparisons.

Ringwall suggests producers take their time compiling data.

"Check for errors and make sure everything's right, because data that isn't checked isn't worth anything," Ringwall says. Most producers utilizing the CHAPS program will wait until the winter months to analyze their cowherd records because the information isn't meant for chute-side decision making.

Once everything is properly entered in the database, it's important to keep a backup, just in case of computer crashes or glitches. Ringwall encourages producers to keep hard copy records as well.

"You've got to be realistic with your time expectations, because records shouldn't take that much time," and when producers are overzealous, other things get forgotten, Ringwall says. Bottom line, he says, "Quit procrastinating and just do it."