Electronic identification offers producers the ability to measure and manage individual animal performance.

In today's industry, there's a lot of talk about value-based marketing. But now, according to Darrell Wilkes, president of Integrated Beef Technologies (IBT), more and more people are beginning to walk that talk.

"There are a lot of people who want to get out of the commodity rut of average pricing and move to a system that rewards them for better-than-average cattle," Wilkes says. "Carcass pricing grids seem to be springing up all over. That's good, because you cannot begin to improve the value of your cattle until you get the data to tell you where you stand today."

Yet there is one problem, Wilkes says. Traditional methods of carcass data collection won't handle the volume of data that they are being asked to provide.

"Standing on the kill floor with a Big Chief tablet, writing down eartag numbers, is fun for about three or four minutes," Wilkes says. "And then you begin telling yourself that there must be a better way. The good news is there is a better way."

New Technology Wilkes consults with ranchers, feedlots and alliances that have adopted the technology known as radio frequency identification (RFID), also known as electronic ID or just EID. His clients collect individual animal performance at weaning, and continue collecting individual animal data through the feedlot and packing plant.

"We are interested in more than just carcass data," he says. "We want total performance data on every individual so that we can look at net profit differences. And the profit differences that we see routinely exceed $300, even within a small pen of 80-100 head. Twenty percent of the cattle in a pen contribute 80 percent of the profit. If you're going to survive in this business, you'd better know which ones they are."

Wilkes looks at the data as a trained geneticist. "What I see," he says, "is a world of opportunity for genetic improvement in profitability. Rather than guessing which traits influence profitability, we measure them directly. EID allows us to use a computerized data collection process that is essentially paperless, and is far less sensitive to volume than the Big Chief approach. The computer doesn't care if you collect 1,000 records or 100,000. It doesn't wear out or get writer's cramp."

Electronics Means Accuracy Wilkes says an additional EID advantage is that animal identification is accurate.

"This isn't a case when you're writing down numbers on manure-covered paper at the chute or blood-covered paper in the plant, then typing those numbers back into a computer," Wilkes adds. "By the time all the numbers are scribbled down and then punched in, I'd be surprised if the error rate doesn't exceed 30 percent, and that makes the data virtually worthless."

An EID-based system is superior to a manual approach, he adds. It's easier and much more accurate. "And if you're going to invest all the necessary time and expense of collecting the data, for heaven's sake, use an accurate system," Wilkes points out.

RFID technology was developed in the 1980s, but it wasn't until recently that the technology was adapted to the cattle industry. When embedded into eartags, the integrated-chip transponder contains a unique identification code that becomes an animal's individual identifier from birth through the packing plant. A RFID reader sends a radio frequency signal to the tag, and the tag responds by broadcasting its unique number to the reader. That number can be used to pull individual data on an animal as it moves through the production chain.

David Warren, president of Allflex USA, a pioneer in animal identification, says the RFID technology will be of vast benefit to the cattle industry if it's used right.

"The provision of fast, reliable and accurate electronic identification allows livestock systems to record data on animal performance from birth to carc ass. It also provides valuable input to critical management decisions on genetics, feeding and animal health programs," Warren says. "It will definitely be a necessity for value-added livestock production."

Yet the electronic eartag is not the answer alone, he adds. By itself, it's simply an animal identification tool. Within a planned data management system, it's the tool that brings together the infrastructure that Wilkes speaks about; an infrastructure that can bring quality and consistency to the beef industry.

"If all a producer wants to do is identify his cattle, he doesn't need an eartag with an integrated chip," Warren says. "But if he is part of a data sharing system, and then follows his cattle through both the feedlot and the packing house, then he has a chance to make accurate decisions about carcass quality based on hard facts."

Warren points out that a commodity industry like beef is slow to change, but there are progressive individuals within the industry who understand the economic advantages of individual animal management and will develop the blueprint for the industry to follow.

"The beef industry needs to change to compete with pork and poultry," Warren says, "and you simply can't change what you can't measure."

For illustration, Warren uses companies like Decatur County Feedyard in Oberlin, KS, which employs electronic identification technology to provide its customers with detailed carcass and growth information.

"The technology to do this is here today," Warren says. "It's not space age or Star Wars. It's taking technology that's been around for many years in other industries and applying it to beef production to improve the product that is being produced."

Wilkes' company is helping make it a reality within that infrastructure. IBT works with feedlots and alliances to get data to the producer and seedstock breeder who must instigate genetic changes. There are no shortcuts to achieving the desired end, Wilkes says. There are only data-driven decisions to guide them.

Rapid Growth Ahead "What's important," Wilkes says, "is the accuracy of electronic identification and the fact that you can deal with much more volume than with traditional recordkeeping methods. You can gather millions of records; the computer doesn't care. It allows you to identify the poor producing cattle one by one. It's precision beef production."

Still, the technology is in its infancy in the U.S. Warren estimates that about 35% of the nation's producers use individual animal identification on their calves, and only 13% use computers for their recordkeeping system.

This will begin to change rapidly when producers realize that individually managed animals that can track genetics and animal health are a premium to many programs that depend on source verification and continual product improvement, Warren says.