Individual animal identification and management systems are starting to save and make producers hard cash.

Lost amid the emotional shuffle of a national, standardized, individual cattle identification system is a powerful and growing recognition: tracking and managing individuals can increase economic returns.

“There's so much benefit that can come from this. If you can use this as a management tool to improve the bottom line, why wouldn't you use it? It's valuable even if the government never makes individual identification mandatory,” says Tigh Cowan of Highmore, SD.

Cowan and his brothers Treg and Tork put their collective shoulder to this conviction three years ago. That's when they established Stock Link (see below, “How One System Works”) as a means of enhancing the profitability of their own sizable stocker operation by tracking and managing individuals rather than groups.

“We're already using this to our advantage to make money,” says Tigh. “This isn't a theory; we've done it.”

By tracking stockers individually via electronic identification (EID) tags, then collecting and sifting through the data using AgInfoLink's BeefLink information system, Tigh says they and Stock Link clients have saved $35-$60/head. That's net savings after the $6 cost for the EID and enrollment in the Stock Link system.

Those savings are based on the ability to manage the cattle more appropriately relative to their actual performance rather than eyeball estimates. They sort off poor performers and sell them. This leverages the returns on the grass left behind and dilutes the overall cost per head of the retained stockers by reducing the interest paid on the poor doers.

“It allows you to manage while there is still time to manage,” explains Treg. “You can go in and look at the cattle by eye and they look good, but by the scale they don't.”

And, as Joe Carmody, another key in the Stock Link team, says, “The scales don't ever lie.”

Tork says that benefit is over and above the management benefits the system allows, “things like evaluating mineral supplement or the nutritional quality of different pastures.” Or, the labor savings associated with health management.

“With this system and sorting the cattle, we don't have to ride and doctor. We can go through and treat them. The doctoring is easier to do treating them one time through rather than riding and doctoring all summer long,” says Treg.

On ranch-fresh calves of known origin, and even with put-together stocker cattle, Tigh says the system allows operators to market more uniform groups of cattle with a documented health management history, at least through the stocker phase.

“Leverage that history with data from the cow/calf pasture and the market value increases exponentially,” he adds.

Information Adds Potential

Just ask Jerry Kusser of the neighboring K Lazy K Ranch, which signed on as one of Stock Link's first clients in 1998. He combined several years of carcass history with Stock Link data to bargain last fall for $115/cwt. on 550-weight steers 10¢ slide up and down, no shrink off the ranch when the Cattle-Fax average for a similar class of steers was $102.75/cwt. Even compared to other top-drawer country cattle, the steers were $5-$10/cwt. ahead of the pack.

“We were tired of taking an average price at the sale barn,” says Kusser, explaining his willingness to dive into a new system even though he didn't know much about it. “You take the top 70-75 percent of the cattle at the sale barn, and there isn't a dime's difference between them. It's what the market is that day. You're at their mercy.”

Of course, buyers can feel just as helpless bidding on cattle they know nothing about other than what their eyes and experience tell them.

“They may be damned good cattle, but they're commodity cattle if we can't validly tell you where they're from or prove what's been done to them,” says Tigh.

That's one reason Lyle Billips of Billips Farms at Hill City, KS, was willing to pony up the premium on Kusser's calves.

“I paid more for them because they had carcass data and the health program on them was just tremendous,” says Billips.

Moreover, the folks at Stock Link used the past carcass data to estimate what the calves should be worth coming out of the feedlot on the Angus GeneNet grid.

Keep in mind, the carcass history didn't come cheap or easy. Frustrated that buyers would never return the carcass data to him as they had promised, Kusser began paying for it about five years ago.

“When we started paying $6 per head for carcass data, the neighbors thought I'd totally lost my mind. They said I'd never get paid for it,” he says.

But, besides the marketing value of individual information, it's the management potential that intrigues both Kusser and Billips.

“The reason I'm interested in it is that when you look at the data we're getting back (on the Kusser steers), the cattle are pretty much like peas in a pod to look at, but the individual carcass values on the rail bounce hundreds of dollars up and down. That's a lot of difference in what the cattle are worth at virtually the same weight,” says Billips.

“You can't tell by looking at them, but you think you can. There is a combination of genetics out there that if we could just identify them, it could revolutionize cattle feeding. The only way to do it is with electronic identification,” he says.

Across the board, Glenn Smith, USA country manager for AgInfoLink explains, “Comparing one pen to another in the feedlot, you don't typically see a huge variation in production looking at averages, maybe a range of $10 per head or about 1 percent variation. But if you look at the variation within each pen, it can be well over $300 or 40-50 percent.”

With that in mind, Smith adds, “You can safely say managing individual cattle in the feedlot is worth at least $50 per head.”

He says that number comes from increasing efficiency and gains by sorting poorer performers from the superior ones at re-implant time, reducing lightweight and heavyweight carcass discounts with commingling, reducing the cost of duplicate animal health management, reduced labor cost and increased odds for hitting higher value pricing grids.

Narrowing The Window

As an example of just how much variation exists before the cattle ever leave home, consider 525 of Kusser's steers. They averaged 417 lbs. overall, ranging from 411-430 lbs. on average across different pastures. But the top 77% of those cattle averaged 441 lbs., ranging in weight from 382-612 lbs. The bottom 23% averaged 339 lbs., with a range of 198-382 lbs.

“We're finding out more things all of the time (with the data),” says Joe Kusser, Jerry's dad. “You get a calf with a sore eye or one that is a little gimpy, and you find out those cattle never catch up, not in this program anyway. That one at the bottom takes at least four from the top to get you back even with the board.”

The Kussers also utilize individual data to narrow the variation gap through selection.

“Everyone culled by the eye before, and to a certain extent you still have to. But without this information I imagine we were keeping some of the poorer doers and sending some of the better ones to town,” says Jerry. “Unless you have all of this information, going to the sale barn, I don't think you can survive on average price. Average prices don't pay for new pickups, tractors and fuel.”

Bottom line, Treg says, “The more information you have, the better decisions you can make. As producers, most of us think we have good cows. We try to buy good bulls, and we work to make the calves the best they can be. Then, we just throw a dart when it comes to marketing.”

Or, Tigh says, you can take control of your marketing destiny.

“Our thought is that there will be a huge value difference paid between documented cattle based on the validity of the documentation. And, certainly we think there will be a huge value difference paid between documented and commodity cattle.

“In the last six months, I've realized there's more opportunity in the cattle business than there has been for a long time. It's just a matter of whether you're willing to change enough to take advantage of the opportunities,” Tigh says.

For more information about the Stock Link program call Stock Link at 605/852-2097.


How One Individual Management System Works

“It's no different than scanning a box of corn flakes at the grocery store,” says Tigh Cowan.

He's describing the electronic identification (EID) tags that are smaller than a coat button (see A), the tag readers that look like a flattened, rubber Billy club (see B) and the electronic Work Cards (see C). Together, these elements allow the Cowan family's Stock Link system to automatically collect individual animal identity, weights, phenotypic descriptions and specific management protocol at the rate of about 200 head/hour.

Most talk of EID the past few years has centered around the tags, says Glenn Smith. He's USA country manager for AgInfoLink, which supports Stock Link with software and hardware.

“But, the tag is just one component. It carries an animal's unique individual identification number and nothing more,” he says.

It's the information system tied to the tag that makes individual management possible on a timely basis, Smith adds.

In the case of Stock Link, producers fill out Cattle Cards (left) with such information as birth date, birth weight, color, sex and the like. The EID tag in the calf's ear corresponds to that particular Cattle Card and returns data to Stock Link.

As the animal progresses, health, weight and performance data is submitted automatically. The producer receives updated performance information and documented history on the cattle.

Or, a producer can choose to have Stock Link handle all processing for them, using a fully portable tub and chute, complete with electronic scales (see photo above). This system and its three-ton chutes make it possible for the Cowans to take the system to wherever the cattle are, rather than having to bring the cattle to the system.

As information is collected, complete with a chute-side audio verification system that tells the person scanning the information what was just scanned in, average daily gain is automatically calculated. What's more, the system includes a trickle-calculator for shrink so that the first calf run through the chute is weighed under the same conditions as the 1,500th calf.

The data that can be collected using the system is limited only by a producer's imagination. If it can be measured or diagrammed, it can be automatically collected and reported on. Using the electronic Work Cards, the person doing the scanning simply runs the tag reader over the appropriate descriptors and a transponder collects the data.

Before diving into any individual management system, however, Smith suggests, “Begin with the end in mind. What is it you want to do? What management decisions do you want to be able to make with individual animal data?”

It's that answer, he says, that determines what data points need to be collected, how they must be collected and in which industry segments they need to be collected.

“Once you sort through all of that, then you can evaluate the kind of system you need,” Smith says.