There's a $6-10/cwt. premium for calves with proven health and individual data backgrounds.

Welcome to the beef industry's own "Me Generation." The added management potential and buyer confidence borne out of tracking individual cattle identity and performance is finally generating more return than cost for some producers.

"What's really amazed us is the demand for cattle that you can provide a warranty with," says Tigh Cowan, Highmore, SD.

"We feel there's currently a $6-$10 per hundredweight difference in these calves if I can guarantee them and warranty that they are what we say they are."

Specifically, Cowan is describing the stocker cattle he and his brothers, Tork and Treg, process and manage for themselves and customers through the Stock Link program.

It is a program the family began after their ranch was hammered by the blizzards of 1996. As they looked for a way to diversify to other enterprises with their grass resources, they started looking at how they might help stockers add value to the generic cattle assembled at sale barns.

Technology Makes It Possible Along with providing health and nutrition management, Stock Link sticks an electronic identification (EID) tag in each calf when they're weighed upon arrival. That weight and subsequent weights prior to selling are automatically attached to the individual's record of history, as is the resulting average daily gain (ADG). Any cattle that don't measure up as expected get sent packing.

On one hand, Cowan says monitoring individuals real-time means being able to sift out the non-performers and still sell them for an average price. Typically, he says about 10% sift themselves out based on subpar performance. On the other hand, usually about 5-7% in their system gain so well that milking optimum efficiency from them means shipping to the yard earlier than expected.

When all is said and done, their customers can sort cattle of similar performance into marketing groups with no more than 100 lbs. separating them top to bottom. Plus, the cattle are sold with documentation - such things as health management practices are scanned into the record of each calf whenever the practice occurs.

"Our goal is to be able to capture the value for the operator while he owns them... The data we're getting is making a tremendous amount of difference," says Cowan.

Indeed, one ranch for which Cowan's Stock Link tracks both stockers and cowherd data reports that the information and everything it makes possible enabled it to make an additional $45-$50/calf last year. That was in return for a direct cost of around $16/head on more than 1,000 calves.

"This is something we (the industry) could do before, but we didn't because it takes too much time to do it manually," says Tom Woodward, general manager of the Broseco Ranch, headquartered at Omaha, TX.

Now armed with electronic scales, EID and handheld computers, Broseco Ranch tracks the performance of thousands of calves each year from weaning time forward.

All the market animals are retained by the ranch and are destined for the Rancher's Renaissance value-added marketing program. So, Broseco can then tie feeding and carcass performance to specific sire groups and management practices.

"I think the marketing options and the ability to track the cattle and get information back to the producer is a really significant tool," says Woodward.

Broseco Ranch says today it helps them fine-tune their ability to track costs and manage resources. In the future, it may help them fine-tune genetic decisions, too.

Managing Forward Keep in mind, everything described here has to do with managing individuals forward through the production chain. A huge carrot that continues to tease producers is managing cattle back through the chain, tying all this individual progeny information back to individual bulls and cows.

So that the cowherd will, in time, be identified individually, Woodward is tagging all Broseco's replacement heifers with EID. At this stage, he doesn't think he can afford to go out and identify every cow on the place.

Plus, so many variables go into female culling decisions, he's not sure looking at individual data from a few progeny fed at different times, in different ways and in different years is a sensible approach. But, maybe it will be over the long haul.

"I prefer to work with it from a population genetics standpoint rather than from an individual selection standpoint, even though we've made a move to identify the individual outliers," says Woodward.

Whether the information is tied back to bulls and cows, Cowan says, "We look at it as if every head out there in the pasture is an employee... What's it worth to you to identify the 15-20 percent that aren't pulling their weight?"

Bottom line, with individual data, Cowan says, "We're trying to make everything and everyone accountable so no one can pass the buck."