If cattle producers had a nickel for every time during the past several years that some industry guru declared: "You can't manage what you can't measure," their saddlebags would be bursting at the seams. If those same producers had already followed that advice, however, profits might be easier to come by.

"Everyone is worried about carcass traits, and rightfully so, but one of the reasons we're doing this is to see how efficient we can be," says Mark Williams of the Twin Oaks Ranch at Canton, TX. He's explaining the electronic individual identification (ID) and records management his family is using to boost the net returns of their commercial operation.

Specifically, Williams says, "Electronic identification will not make you money. It is a mechanism to make you more efficient and reduce the overall cost, then more effectively channel cattle to defined targets."

Indeed. Will Pape, chairman of the board for AgInfoLink Global, Inc. says in his family's stocker operation, "When we started weighing animals before and after trucking we discovered one trucker consistently delivered cattle with 1.5 percent more shrink. Because we had individual measures, we also knew the impact of that lasted six weeks... These impacts are not visible at group level, only on an individual basis."

Whether it's cows, calves or feeders, Pape explains, "There is more variability within groups than there is across groups." As an example, a group of 418 stocker calves posted an average daily gain of 2.3 lbs. four weeks after receiving. But, individual gain ranged from 0.7 lb. to more than 4 lbs.

"You have 30-40 percent variation in that group. That's what I continue to see when I look at the data," says Pape. Using individual data to make management decisions has added $30/head to his revenue and reduced per-head cost $7-8.

The reality of potential economic return - for a cost of $5 per head or so, depending on the system - might at least make a mandatory national ID system palatable.

At the recent inaugural meeting of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, John Wiemers, national ID director for USDA's Animal and Health Plant Inspection Service, had this to say. "The private sector will have three years to develop livestock ID systems that work... At the end of three years, livestock ID will become mandatory unless the industry has evolved to where it is already doing it as a course of business."

Whether or not Uncle Sam ever makes such a system mandatory, their interest is easy to understand.

"When you as a cattleman send your cattle from the farm, they are no longer your cows or your calves. They are food for the public," says Wiemers. And, as the nation's longstanding de facto national ID systems - including the Brucellosis eradication program - come to a close via the commitment of producers, the government is facing a cattle supply it cannot track.

So, Wiemers says a standardized national system is needed to protect the national herd from disease, to monitor health and productivity, and to expand domestic and international markets. Globally, the U.S. is already a fair step behind countries like some in Europe that can tell consumers the specific farm from where a specific cut of beef originates.

It's Also A Competitive Tool Besides, adds Williams of Twin Oaks Ranch: "From an industry perspective, we have to do certain things to set ourselves apart from the other protein sources." In other words, beef needs to document the food safety advantages it possesses, relative to the competition.

"It's not the packers' problem and it's not the feeders' problem, it's all of our problem," says Williams. Plus, closer to home he believes individual ID reduces his liability. If anyone ever comes knocking, he can verify the health and management of every head that has walked his pastures.

Moreover, Williams says, "I'm all for a national data base because right now you have a situation where the first person who puts a tag in the ear is bearing all of the up-front costs of enrolling the animal in an ID system."

Obviously, developing a national system - voluntary or mandatory - currently raises more questions than answers. Who will own the data? Who will have access to it? How much cost does it add to the system?

However, as these questions and others are sorted, Williams suggests, "Producers need to sit down and figure out where they want to be in five years, in 10 years and what target they're going after." Then use the power of individual ID, coupled with individual management to get there.

"What we're delving into is not a silver bullet," says Williams. "It is a holistic approach to look at every aspect of the animal and its profit or loss throughout its life."