The country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law that takes effect Sept. 30, 2004 requires ranchers to verify the cattle they sell as born and raised in the U.S. While a lot of air and paper are being expended in debating the verification process and the cost of implementing it, folks with intensively managed herds have little to worry about.

These people already have the data needed to verify U.S. “born and raised.” In fact, the added cost of COOL verification for these intensive managers will be minimal or nothing at all. This is because the same data used to intensively manage a beef cow herd should suffice for COOL compliance.

In my 10 years of analyzing Northern Plains beef cow herds, I've tried to document what makes one beef cow herd more profitable than another. During that time, I've been continually asked what weaning weight, what size of cow and/or what breed of cows generates the highest profit. My answer tends to surprise ranchers.

My database analysis suggests that beef-cow profits aren't highly correlated with weaning weight, cow size or cow breed. Profits are, however, highly correlated with the intensity of the rancher's management program. The more intense the management program, the higher the profits.

On-farm data is what becomes the profit generator. And, one of the first steps in moving into the high-profit arena is to have herd performance records.

High-profit herds tend to have herd performance records (with individual cows identified). Records are kept on each individual cow and all of her calves. All cows in the herd are indexed based on most-probable-producing ability (MPPA), which is based on that cow's lifetime production.

My conclusion is that herd performance records, which are needed to enhance your beef cow herd profits, will work for COOL verification, as well. After all, the on-farm management data needed for high profits can also prove the link of each individual calf back to its dam.

In reality, COOL should actually stimulate more producers to intensify their management programs. As a result, what began as a marketing ploy may end up being an even bigger management ploy. If this indeed becomes the case, COOL could be a major boost to ranchers' bottom lines.

Profitable ranching appears to be changing. Not only does a rancher now need a high level of production skills, he also must have increased business management skills.

Running beef cows without data is getting increasingly harder. In fact, my cost-and-return studies suggest that intensive management is the key business management skill for running the business of beef cows. On-farm data is what separates it from just running beef cows.

Running the business of beef cows requires a lot of on-farm data. Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University animal scientist, defines on-farm data as “factual information used as a basis for reasoning, discussion and calculation.”

Needless to say, on-farm data is where long-term solutions and planning are born. It's also where COOL verification for your calves can be automatically generated.

So, what data is needed to operate a herd performance system? It can be quite simple. For instance, you need to identify your cows, and then your calves as they are born, as well as recording the calves' birth dates and weaning weights.

With these four pieces of information, your computer can generate a number of management reports. For instance, Figure 1 presents a reproductive summary of a study herd compared to the “benchmark averages” on herds in the region. These are reproductive measures suggested by the national Integrated Resource Management (IRM) program's production standards.

The denominator for calculating each number is the females exposed at bull turnout date. The only exception to this is the bottom number for calf death loss. This percentage is based on the number of calves born. Besides knowing your herd's absolute numbers, it's critical that you compare your numbers to the benchmark averages for other herds in your region.

Figure 2 presents a production data summary you should obtain from your herd performance records. Again, knowing your own numbers is important, but additional management power comes from comparing your herd's numbers to benchmark herds for your region.

Figure 3 presents a calving distribution summary for this beef cow herd. I wonder why this particular rancher couldn't get his cows bred in a timely manner? It appears to be a bottleneck to the rancher's profitability.

The important point is that only four pieces of information — cow ID, calf ID, birth date and weaning weight — were needed to generate this intensive management data. Best of all, this same data should work for COOL verification on your herd.

Harlan Hughes is a North Dakota State University professor emeritus. He lives in Laramie, WY. Reach him at 701/238-9607 or harlan.hughes@gte.net.