Conventional wisdom is that livestock auction markets will become central to the theme when mandatory livestock identification (ID) hits the national stage. Some markets are already gearing up for that day — including one of the Heartland's largest stockyards.

The crew at Joplin Regional Stockyards (JRS), Carthage, MO, knows they'll be called on to routinely identify cattle as a service for livestock producers and marketers. In addition to being its own “premise,” JRS plans to facilitate premise establishment for a stream of consigners.

It's not something that begins with a flip of a switch though. JRS has been evolving into ID and livestock tracking technology.

JRS has, on a sporadic basis, already handled cattle wearing an assortment of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. And the stockyards presently uses a bar-coded panel tag to ID animals assigned to their commingled cattle sales (see sidebar below).

Marketing director Mark Harmon says that with a national ID system coming down the pike, the cowhands at JRS will have to pick up the pace though.

“Livestock auctions, as a place of first movement, are natural locations to provide this kind of service for customers,” says Harmon. “We'll have to see how this all shakes out, but we're looking at all our options.”

He envisions JRS crews tagging cattle according to customers' premise IDs and entering the data into computers that, he expects, could link with most of the major data management systems being used today for livestock. This, he says, will help smaller producers, in particular, save money and labor when it comes to tagging efforts.

“Given the nature of our setup, we can be pretty efficient at applying the tags and entering the necessary data,” he explains. “We can also buy the tags in bulk — literally by the thousands. Economy of scale should help us reduce costs.”

Eventually, tagging and tracking will become a normal service function for markets. It's a service that livestock auctions will have to provide to keep customers from seeking other marketing venues.

“A lot of producers don't have the desire or ability to deal with tagging and data entry on the farm,” adds Harmon. “It's a natural role for us to play.”

So, What's The Plan?

As it now stands, the plan at JRS is to have RFID tagging and scanning capabilities “coming in” and “going out” of the yards, according to Steve Owens. He and Jackie Moore are JRS co-owners.

Owens is wary that ID and tagging activities will interfere with the flow of cattle through the yards.

“We can't let it slow down the flow of cattle through these yards,” he says. “That's the last thing we want.”

He says “someone” has to decide on some standards so that all tagging systems “agree” with each other. Whatever comes down the line, he says it has to be a one-time, one-tag system that's as seamless as possible. The biggest threat to flow comes with missing tags and when tags are misread or incompatible with reading and scanning systems.

“No system will be perfect,” admits Owens. “But, it's got to be close to 100% or it'll create all kinds of problems for us.”

A History Of Innovation

Since September 2001, Joplin Regional Stockyards (JRS), Carthage, MO, has been conducting commingled cattle sales on a weekly basis. This process involves sorting cattle of multiple producers into larger lots based on weight, shape, color and sex.

JRS marketing director Mark Harmon says these larger uniform lots are attractive to more buyers. Thus, they bring a premium price compared to cattle sold in drafts of less than five head.

“Commingling also allows the smaller producers to sell at a premium at sale time,” Harmon says. The charge for commingling cattle is an additional $3.50/head.

In June 2002, JRS started broadcasting its Monday and Wednesday sales live over the Internet utilizing services provided by DVauction Inc. The broadcast is real time and allows registered buyers to bid and purchase cattle online. The service also allows sellers to view their cattle sale from home or work. Visit their Web site at www.joplinstockyards.com for more details.

JRS offers producers the opportunity to market their cattle in special sales when certain value-added practices have been utilized.

“These practices can include health programs, optional feeding programs, weaning and individual ID,” Harmon says. “Most of these programs require castration of bulls; heifers guaranteed open and dehorned. The industry desires these value-added cattle and will pay a premium.”