Should I change to a two-breed rotation? Will paying more for a bull with specific genetic traits hurt or help my bottom line? How will increased milk in my herd impact carrying capacity and feed resources? If I normally wean my calves at 190 days, what happens over a 10- to 15-year interval if I start weaning at 150 days?

These are the kind of strategic decisions that can be costly and time consuming to implement. More than that, however, bad decisions can negatively impact a beef cattle operation for years. So how does one minimize the chance of strategic failures, optimize management dollars and still make the adjustments necessary to stay efficient and competitive?

One new tool is called DECI (Decision Evaluator for the Cattle Industry). It's a computer simulation package that allows beef producers to ask "what if" and evaluate strategic management decisions all the way through to carcass for an individual herd of breeding females.

The first version - DECI 1.0 - which evaluates management decisions through weaning, made its debut in February 1998. An update - DECI 2.0 - was recently released and adds the post weaning enterprises of backgrounding, stocker and finishing to the cow/calf enterprise of the first version.

An Incredible Success DECI is an incredible success story of collaboration between the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of USDA and the U.S. beef industry. In just two years, building off previously developed technology and systems, the alliance erased a significant competitive shortfall of the U.S. beef cattle industry.

While the rest of the world was taking advantage of computer simulation to design buildings, bridges and utility grids, train pilots, design manufacturing flow systems, even train millions of student drivers, the beef industry was running behind, lacking in three main areas. These, says Barry Dunn, a South Dakota producer and president of the Integrated Resource Management (IRM) Committee of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), were record keeping, analysis and decision making.

(IRM is a management concept that uses a team approach of outside expertise to keep the big picture in focus while deliberating on specific management changes in a beef cattle operation.)

IRM had previously addressed the first two shortfalls. The record keeping concern was addressed with record programs like the Red Book and the Natural Resource Desk Record - loose leaf formats designed to collect baseline information. Both were designed to meet Standardized Performance Analyses (SPA) guidelines and to serve as a central data collection point for a cow/calf operation.

The second need - analysis - was answered with the debut of SPA, a software program that allows collection of production and financial information in a standard format. This allows ranchers the opportunity to analyze their ranch operation from both a production and financial side, and facilitates the comparison of an operation's performance between years, producers, production regions and production systems.

The third, however, was trickier - how can all the gathered data be used in a timely, insightful and cost-effective manner?

Getting The Job Done The IRM Committee of NCBA concluded in 1995 that a management simulation model for producer use was necessary to address the issue. The next year, a resolution calling for development of a decision support tool was passed at the NCBA convention.

NCBA then requested the ARS to develop the software package. That May, USDA agreed and assigned two researchers - Tom Jenkins and Charles Williams of the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC), Clay Center, NE - to the project.

The duo, both research animal scientists, decided to update a biological simulation model of a cow herd that can be traced to work initially done at Texas A&M University in the mid-1970s, and later refined by researchers at CSU.

Using it as a base, Jenkins and Williams used data collected at MARC and other research locations to change the growth and energy partitioning components of the model. The model's accuracy was conducted using production data from the beef cattle research program at MARC.

Then, interacting with producers, they added the user-friendly front end to allow simplicity and ease of use to producers of varying computer skills. Later, a SPA component was added.

Current plans are for the addition of a forage simulation component in the near future. The IRM committee also wants to add an economic model that would include price cycles and cost cycles.

A Benchmarking Tool "Basically, DECI is a benchmarking tool. By using it, a producer can determine where he is now and, if he enacts a specific management change, where he'll be - 10 to 15 years down the road," Dunn says. "We're confident DECI will improve the efficiency of our industry," Dunn says.

The system requirements to run DECI are a personal computer with a Pentium 200 Mhz or higher CPU, and Windows 95 or Windows NT 4.0 operating system. On a Pentium 200 Mhz CPU it would take about 30 seconds to simulate a herd size of 120 cows for one year. The model will run with CPUs down to 75 Mhz Pentium but the runs will take longer.

To run a successful simulation, what's needed is the breed composition of the current cow herd and the feeding history for that herd for the past several years. Using that base information the model will predict a large number of attributes in the simulation herd including date of birth, sex, birth weight, body condition scores, etc.

A SPA analysis on the operation is required for benchmark purposes. "SPA is what the industry has adopted as its standard. There are default values in the program, but without the proper inputs to serve as historical benchmarks, you'll never see what the true effect is," Dunn says.

DECI is available free of charge on CD-ROM with on-line support available. About 350 of the programs are currently in circulation, but most have been distributed via group workshops of about eight hours.

Groups aid the learning and sharing process, Dunn points out.

By design, acceptance of DECI has therefore come slowly, although Dunn notes that in South Dakota alone there are at least six active groups of up to eight producers each that have formed just since the first of the year. And universities in Missouri, Montana and Texas are also conducting active programs working with DECI.

Dunn says IRM is also currently working with members and staff of a major U.S. beef alliance. "It's really in the best interests of these value-based marketing systems that producers enter into these arrangements with good insight into what participation in a grid marketing alliance will do to their bottom line," he says.

Interested groups should contact Renee Lloyd, NCBA director of production systems at 303/850-3373; Tom Jenkins, 402/762-4247; or Barry Dunn, 605/688-5455.

Regional contacts include:

South: Bill Kunkel, University of Florida, 352/392-9059; Tom Troxel, University of Arkansas, 501/671-2188.

East: Scott Barao, University of Maryland, 301/405-1394.

Midwest: Dale Blasi, Kansas State University, 785/532-5427.

Southwest: John McNeill, Texas A&M University, 409/845-3579.

West: Bill Zollinger, Oregon State University, 541/737-1906.