Every man has his breaking point. For Bob Bachman, a cattle business lifer, the last straw turned up in 1992 when the poorest cattle he ever marketed - the product of settling for some quick-turn heifers to stock newly acquired pastures - brought more money than the cattle he'd worked years to develop.

One heifer in particular pushed him over the edge. "It was the sorriest animal we ever raised and coming out of the feedlot it brought the most money (live) of any we had," remembers Bachman, vice president and general manager of Agri-Ventures Corp., Graham, TX. "That's when I decided right then and there that there has to be a better way. It's crazy."

So, Bachman started looking for value-added opportunities that would reward and discount his cattle based on their true merit rather than where they fit within the averages. At the same time, he started figuring out how he could identify and track the individual performance of their 1,500 cows in order to minimize the discount risk.

He began tagging and collecting data on the cows in 1994 and started tagging every calf two years ago. Bachman has even gone as far as using DNA to match calves to the bulls that run in multiple-sire pastures so he can see what both sides of the pedigree are contributing or stealing.

"Even if you didn't weigh every calf individually (as Agri-Ventures does), if you'd just match them up to the cows and rate them with your eyeball, it would be helpful," says Bachman.

As it is, Bachman weighs every calf at weaning time, scoring them at the same time as excellent, good, fair or poor based upon their weight, composition and quality.

It provides information that allows him to more effectively match bulls to his 12 different herds of cows - mostly Angus and Brangus, bred back the same way for replacements, and bred to Charolais for a terminal cross. But, tracking the data is the only way Bachman can reduce the variation in his program.

Keep in mind, Bachman has been tracking individual information for about five years, and he started out with a reputation herd built with a keen eye. Yet, last year, the 963 cattle he fed and marketed through B3R Country Meats at Childress, TX (see page 20) earned premiums as high as $103/head and suffered discounts as heavy as $128/head. The average carcass premium across the whole offering was $21.11/head. There was that much variation.

"The first thing I learned about the cattle business is that we make it too complicated," says James Henderson, B3R general manager. "It all comes down to knowing which cows make you money and which ones don't."

Plus, Minnie Lou Bradley of Bradley 3 Ranch (B3R) at Memphis, TX, explains the cow really represents more than 50% of progeny potential since the calf is living with her seven to eight months.

"When we started hanging up all of these cattle (at B3R), we saw that probably 20 percent of the cattle were losing producers money in our program, rather than making money. We'd ask them who the mothers of those cattle were and no one could tell us," says Bradley.

Instead, Henderson explains, "When people call us the first time, they'll typically tell us their calves are uniform. What's that mean when we put them on the scale and there are 350-400 pounds difference in weight between them?"

He doesn't buy the notion that the lightest calves are the youngest. If age was the driving factor, then he says those light calves should make up the weight differential in the 60-90 days that mirrors the calving season. Whether they're poor doers, born late, or both, he believes their mamas need to be identified and sent packing.

"When 20 percent of your cows are losing you money, how can you expect to make money? And how can you get rid of them if you don't know who they are?" says Bradley.

Wrap Your Arms Around The Herd "Most people think if they're going to tag calves, they have to tag them at birth and that the calves' tag numbers have to be the same as the dams', and that's not the case," says Bradley.

In fact, what can appear as a logistical nightmare at first glance is fairly easy. In a nutshell, when Agri-Ventures works calves at branding time, they put a chronologically numbered tag in their ears. After calves are worked, they turn a few at a time back in with the cows. In about a half-hour, Bachman says you can easily match up at least half of the calves with their mamas - writing the calf tag number by that of the dam. Over the next four or five months, another 40-50% of the calves can be matched up by carrying a notebook and paying attention.

At Agri-Ventures, pelvic measurements and ultrasound scans of each replacement heifer are taken. Bachman and his crew also stick a permanent identification tag and a tattoo in the ears of new heifers at preg-checking time. Wander through a package of their bred heifers and you'll discover mobile bovine billboards. In the left ear are the female's adult identification number and a smaller tag indicating which herd she's from. Her calf identification number is in the right ear.

"Find simple ways to track cattle that don't have to take a lot of time, trouble and strain," suggests Henderson. For instance, he says, "It may be as simple as deciding that every heifer you keep will be treated differently for at least two years. Stick a tag in their ears and keep track of them."

At least in the beginning, Henderson says the goal is to identify the negative outliers.

"Keep in mind if you eliminate the bottom end, that's the fastest progress you can make," says Henderson. "There are some real simple things you have to look at first. What kind of forest (herd) do you have? Is it hard wood or mesquite, is it valuable or is it trash? Ninety-nine times out of 100, it will be a mixture ofboth. So, the first thing is figuring out how to get rid of the trash so you can grow the value."

Of course, collecting reams of data then never using it or using it the wrong way has no value.

"In the early '90s we saw lots of producers keeping track of lots of data. Invariably, we would ask why they were tracking a particular set of data and how they were using it, and they couldn't give us an answer. If you're not going to use it, why keep it?" says Stan Bevers, a Texas A&M University Extension economist at Vernon, TX.

On the other hand, Bradley says, "When it costs you $3,500 to have a home for a cow, and $350-$380 a year to take care of a cow, and there's $500 difference in the value of their calves, producers might want to spend more time finding the differences."

As Bachman tracks the Agri-Ventures herd, he says, "Our biggest problem is ribeye. It's too small, and that's probably true of every herd in America with lots of Brahman and British influence. But you can take care of that quickly with a terminal cross...So, I'm using my herd carcass data to tell me what kind of bull I need to put with the cows." And, he's using the individual performance data to tell him which cows are worth keeping.

Compare steers and heifers out of his first-calf heifers in 1997 and 1998 (Table 1) and it would appear his system, while still taking baby steps, is already paying dividends. And that's just on the carcass side of the fence.

"We'll be first to tell producers in the B3R program that the premiums we pay on the carcass are as good as there is, but it's nothing compared to what this data can help them do back home with fertility and reducing their calving season from 60 to 45 days. We think there is more money to be made there," says Bradley.

But Bachman admits he probably wouldn't go to the trouble if he couldn't marry the tracking process to the incentives of a value-added program like B3R.

"Finally, I have a goal," says Bachman excitedly. Rather than just trying to get live calves on the ground and pounds across the scale, he now has the mechanism to boost other efficiencies. He's shooting for $80-100/head carcass premium, and believes that goal can be achieved within the next five years.

"I'm glad I started identifying my individual cow's production ability two years ago because if our present drought continues I'll know where to start reducing numbers," says Bachman. "Plus, the value of these cattle should be enhanced by the time the new cattle cycle hits its next peak."