As stocker operators purchase cattle, they should be aware of those that are moving through the marketplace verified for source and age,” says Cara Gerken, IMI Global vice president of quality services.

“When purchasing source- and age-verified cattle, stockers should take care to preserve the identity of them (more later). This will allow the stocker operator to market the cattle as source and age verified,” she says.

More specifically, preserving the identity of such cattle will enable stocker operators to market cattle into the growing number of Quality Systems Assessment (QSA) programs being developed by feedlots.

In a small, imperfect nutshell, QSA programs — certified by USDA — are a way of verifying that specific claims made about the cattle are true, in accordance with specific internationally recognized standards.

QSAs ensure specified product requirements are supported by a documented quality management system. It's a documented trail of verification that supports a product claim. In the case of verifying source and age, for example, a QSA program provides USDA-approved corroboration that the system used for verification is accurate enough to withstand periodic audits by a third-party source.

Never mind that verifying these kinds of cattle attributes still boils down to someone's word, no matter how much paperwork and red tape is wrapped around it. Fact is, a growing number of consumers want that word to be verified by someone who isn't involved in the transaction.

“Affidavits worked really well in supplying our domestic consumers. The difference now is we're dealing with international consumers and other governments who want more verification,” explains Clayton Huseman, Kansas Livestock Association (KLA) director of feedlot services.

Certainly the quest to resume beef exports to Japan has driven interest in QSAs as they're an approved means to verify cattle age for USDA's Beef Export Verification (BEV) program. This program requires cattle age to be traceable to live-animal production records. Based on negotiations last October, Japan indicated it would accept cattle coming through USDA's BEV program documented as 20 months of age or younger.

But, Gerken says QSA interest is also exploding because of domestic consumers.

“There's a growing trend for consumers to want to know more about their food,” she says. “Third-party verification is one method to assure consumers they're getting what they want. Verification helps make it authentic.”

Consequently, there's increasing need for each industry sector to prove product attributes by controlling and documenting the processes that created the product through programs like QSA.

QSAs also reduce the liability of purchasing cattle billed as possessing defined attributes. In the case of feedlot QSA programs for source and age verification, Leann Saunders, IMI Global vice president, says, “This approval gives packers added confidence in their own source- and age-verification programs and significantly reduces their risk when buying source- and age-verified cattle.”

Incidentally, a decade ago IMI began providing integrated software solutions and traceability technology for livestock. A growing part of the firm's business today revolves around helping customers develop and maintain USDA-approved QSA and process-verified programs (PVP).

“IMI developed and utilizes a program called USVerified.com to create and document quality management systems,” Gerken explains. “IMI also provides training and auditing services for quality management systems as organizations implement and maintain these programs.”

For feedyards that develop their own QSA programs — making cattle eligible for packers' QSA programs — approval means they can market to a variety of packer QSA programs without having to keep separate records for each. Nor do they have to comply with the different requirements that can exist among programs.

Crist Feed Yard at Scott City, KS, and sister yard, KC Cattle Feeders, became the first feedlots to receive QSA approval for age and source in April. At the time, Ty Rumford, general manager, explained, “We realized there was a need to supply as many source- and age-verified cattle as possible, and in a manner expected by our export markets. Our QSA program standardizes the way we conduct business and ensures our customers we have truly verified both source and age. We think it will be invaluable to both our producer and packer customers.”

Huseman emphasizes, “Interest is high, and there's a broad cross-section of feedyards working on QSAs.”

For perspective, IMI had three QSA customers in February. Today, the company is helping 65 packers and feedlots develop and maintain QSA programs. This is in addition to eight clients IMI helps develop and maintain PVPs, which are a more complex cousin of QSAs.

“The PVP requires more detail and covers a larger scope of activities than a QSA, such as source and age, in addition to other requirements like feeding management and genetics,” Gerken explains. “Conversely, the scope of a QSA program is very specific and defined.” Both QSA and PVP can qualify cattle for USDA's BEV program.

Verification dominos

Take a spin through the QSA programs approved by USDA thus far (www.ams.usda.gov/lsg/arc/qsap.htm) and you'll find all the major packers have one.

In cowboy terms, the packer QSA programs verify that packers know and can prove cattle entering their BEV programs fit the age requirement. In keeping with this, each packer's QSA defines the standards its suppliers must meet to be eligible for its QSA program; for approval, each packer must maintain a list of approved suppliers to its QSA.

For feedlots, this means conforming to the requirements of each packer's QSA and maintaining separate records for each, as mentioned earlier. Or, feedlots like Crist and KC Feeders can create their own QSA programs, which also includes maintaining their own list of eligible suppliers.

In turn, suppliers to feedlot QSA programs (stockers and cow-calf producers) can seek to qualify as an approved supplier to a feedlot QSA, or jump through the hoops to create their own, as feedlots are doing.

Keep in mind, stockers can ignore QSA and still market cattle to most, if not all, current feedlot customers. Conforming to a feedlot's QSA simply expands the value possibility. Even without Japan, major U.S. retailers, including McDonald's, are paying a premium for source-verified cattle.

That's really the primary potential advantage of creating your own QSA: taking control of your own marketing destiny, to a degree.

With age and source, for example, it could be that the way you procure and manage cattle wouldn't comply with a particular feedlot's QSA, whereas an approved program of your own could make them eligible.

Basically, a company's QSA describes how it will verify the product requirement, and how it will maintain its identity throughout production. This includes how employees are trained to follow QSA protocols.

So, for instance, a feedlot QSA might describe what records it uses and maintains to validate age and how it conducts internal audits to verify conformance to its unique QSA protocol.

There's a slug of other specifics, too (www.ams.usda.gov/lsg/arc/qsap.htm). That's why many operations enlist the expertise of a firm like IMI to guide them through the QSA process.

Along the way, Gerken says, “Any time a producer can start managing the process rather than the product, they can become more efficient.”

Preserving the identity

If a stocker operation wants a shot at becoming an eligible supplier for feedlot QSAs or wants to create its own QSA program, identity preservation will be key.

“Preserving the identity of calves purchased as verified for source and/or age means being able to clearly represent them as such,” Gerken explains. “As an example, if you purchase a load of stocker calves verified for source and age, and commingle them with a load of non-verified calves, you must be able to separate and represent the source- and age-verified ones from the non source- and non age-verified cattle.”

That means cattle must carry some method of ID, individually or by group, accompanied by the required records (BEV-accepted records can be found at www.ams.usda.gov/lsg/arc/bev.htm). This is why Gerken suggests stockers wanting to comply with QSA programs utilize USDA-approved data service providers. These range from ID service companies like IMI, to suppliers producers are already using for non-ID services.

For instance, maybe you purchase calves through a particular preconditioning program. Perhaps you buy calves from a seedstock supplier's customer buy-back program. Or, it could be a certain live or video auction you patronize frequently.

These and other allied industries aren't in the ID business, per se. But a growing number of them are either seeking QSA approval to qualify cattle for source and age, or they're teaming with QSA-approved data service providers to provide QSA qualification as a convenience to their customers.

If you purchase calves through such an approved QSA program, the calves should be QSA-eligible as long as you maintain their identity.

For more information, look for the QSA fact sheet at wwwbeefstockerusa.org, or visit www.usverified.com.

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