When you have 60,000 head of cattle spread across hundreds of square miles of tough, South Texas range, a national plan to individually ID every animal to allow lifetime traceback in the event of an animal-health emergency could be a real case for consternation. But a fabled Texas ranch found such concern was mostly unwarranted from the practical side.

The King Ranch is a microcosm of the U.S. beef industry. Encompassing 825,000 total acres on four sites across South Texas, it includes a 1,100-head seedstock division, as well as a 25,000-head cow-calf enterprise, about 12,000 head of purchased stockers, and a 16,000-head feedlot consisting almost exclusively of outside cattle. In addition, the operation includes 300 Quarter Horses, part of the King Ranch's cutting-horse breeding and development program.

The South Texas enterprises, which also include farming, hunting and energy leases, as well as eco-tourism, are spread among four locations. The Santa Gertrudis Division, which encompasses the feedlot and horse operation, is located in Kingsville, while the Laureles Division is located at roughly the same latitude but just east of Kingsville to the Gulf of Mexico. The Encino Division, the smallest of the four, and the Norias Division are located further south (see p. 22).

“Our intent with the ID project was to get a handle on these ID processes early on,” says Craig Payne, DVM, who headed up the project as part of his Texas A&M University-Kingsville (TAMU-K) graduate work. “Obviously, with an operation as complex as the King Ranch, you can't just wake up on the morning of Jan. 1, 2009, and say, ‘Okay, it's time to do this.’”

Payne, a second-year MS candidate in TAMU-K's King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management program, says the project's intent was to design and test a workable and cost-effective ID and traceback system for the ranch that would comply with the proposed National Animal Identification System (NAIS). A second aim was to consider possible alternative uses or advantages to management beyond the NAIS mission.

According to USDA's NAIS timetable, all U.S. livestock premises are to be registered with an official premises ID number, and all animals leaving their birthplaces to be individually ID'd, by January 2008. Reporting of all commercial movement is mandated by January 2009.

“We decided we needed to do this in as realistic a manner as possible so we could start picking out where the inefficiencies and snags were going to be,” Payne says. “For the ranch to be compliant with current NAIS guidelines, as I understand them, two things needed to be done: ensure cattle are identified before they move to a location with a different premises number, and report tag numbers to the national database for cattle entering the operation from a location with a different premises number. The protocol being used is designed around these two concepts.”

But what was just as important was learning what wouldn't be required, Payne adds.

“Any animals not leaving the operation, such as cows and bulls, won't be required to have a tag. We also learned the ranch didn't need to purchase elaborate equipment. We determined a simple handheld reader would work well in the cow-calf, feedlot and stocker operations,” he says.

All in all, Payne concluded making the ranch fully compliant with NAIS, when and if that time comes, will be less difficult than initially thought.

Three premises

Though he stresses much is yet unsettled concerning the NAIS — for instance, particulars on the makeup and function of the data-clearing service, whether the program will be mandatory or not, and who will absorb the program's costs — ranch manager Dave Delaney decided to start the process in one King Ranch division. There, a system could be researched and fine-tuned before expanding it across the ranch. The Encino Division, the smallest division but home to seedstock, commercial and stocker cattle, was chosen as the beta site.

King Ranch management is considering registering under three premises — one for the feedlot and the traps surrounding it, another for the rest of the cattle operations, and one for the horse operation. Payne says registering all cattle (other than feedlot cattle) in one premises would make for easier movement between divisions. Since the King Ranch feeds exclusively outside cattle, it made sense to register the feedlot as its own premises, even though the facility resides within the borders of the Santa Gertrudis Division.

Payne proposed a three-phase project, beginning in the Encino Division, where the bugs would be worked out over two calf crops — spring and fall 2006. The second phase involved implementation into the other divisions — scheduled for 2007. The third phase, scheduled to begin in January 2008, involves bringing the electronic ID system and the entire ranch into full compliance with NAIS requirements for individual animal ID and mandatory movement reporting by January 2009.

“We didn't want to conduct this test as if just cattle-tagging were involved, however,” says Encino Manager Scott O'Rite. “When we tagged our first set of cattle at Encino last spring during processing, we recorded that info into a PDA, using an electronic paddle scanner to scan the numbers. That's a step a normal producer wouldn't have to do, but we wanted the practice, as we'll be using the equipment in the feedlot for incoming cattle.”

Payne reports the tags ran $2/head, while the paddle scanner cost $600, and the PDA was $300. The tags were scanned and entered into an Excel spreadsheet, which was sent to King Ranch headquarters for storage in the ranch's database.

In practice, a rancher wouldn't have to scan the tags. Payne's understanding is that when a rancher purchases tags, the vendor will send the tag numbers, along with the ranch premises number, to the national database. The rancher's only responsibility is tagging the animal.

“So for the commercial cow-calf operation out there on the King Ranch, we concluded all that's needed for NAIS compliance on the calves is to tag them when they leave the operation,” O'Rite says.

Actually, the toughest part of the process, Payne reports, was to determine program expectations. NAIS guidelines are still in flux. Software requirements and data-transfer procedures for the national database aren't yet known, either.

“No one has really detailed how this process will work,” Payne says. Even though the ranch's protocol is primarily based upon information collected from individuals involved in NAIS pilot projects, some assumptions had to be made to fill in the gaps.

Other potential payoffs

“For the King Ranch commercial side, we decided the easiest time to tag them was at marking (initial vaccination and castration — about 90 days of age) and branding. The next time the calves would be gathered is shipping time for backgrounding and we didn't want to add to their stress. That's when the calves leave the premises,” Payne says.

O'Rite reports tag retention has so far been excellent during the test period.

“We had some concerns about how many tags we might lose in this South Texas brush country on calves tagged two months before, but retention hasn't been a problem,” he says.

Beyond the pure NAIS mission of an electronic ID system, Payne sees great potential in performance-tracking.

“Identifying cattle could be very beneficial, for instance, in testing the economics of deworming South Texas calves. By treating some and leaving controls, it would be possible to determine performance differences by doing weigh-ups at gathering for shipment to backgrounding facilities,” he says.

That's just one possibility for those willing to go beyond the simple animal ID and traceback mission of NAIS.

“The technology is there to allow the NAIS system to serve other useful purposes to producers,” Payne says. “And as technology gets even more capable, there's no telling what will be possible.”

For instance, source and age information may be the greatest opportunity for capturing additional revenue in cattle. Capitalizing on that would be beyond the capabilities of simple NAIS compliance but could defray the cost of the equipment and procedure, Payne says.

“In time, the ranch may also find electronic ID useful for inventory tracking, collecting performance data in the feedlot, and collecting carcass data from the packer,” Payne says. “As electronic ID technology advances, the ranch may find it of value for their genetic program, for tracking individual calf performance, and for monitoring the health of feedlot and stocker cattle. In the end, the possible uses for EID will only be limited by the creativity of the people using the system.”