When Dean and Karen Wang sold their calves this fall they had specific instructions written into the contract. The Baker, MT, ranchers wanted to be sure the buyer, an Iowa farmer-feeder, would leave the radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in the calves' ears and cooperate in returning performance data.

In fact, the calves will be followed all the way through slaughter — and the Wangs hope to capitalize on the information flow that began when they tagged the calves on the ranch.

Like a few dozen other Montana ranchers, the Wangs are using the services of the Montana Beef Network (MBN), a program designed to help the state's cattle producers receive added value for their calves. This will be Wang's sixth year in the program — plus two years in his own individual ID program.

A major MBN component involves identifying cattle that meet specific beef quality and consistency targets. The foundation of the network is data collection and information exchange based on the use of RFID tags.

Not A Perfect World

This is the fourth year the Wangs have specified they want data back on their calves as a condition of sale. They've included similar wording in direct sales to a large commercial feeder, while selling on the Internet and through an agreement with an order buyer.

Dean Wang admits that MBN's individual ID system hasn't worked perfectly, and he realizes “mistakes happen.” Yet, he's been able to get data back on his calves in all but two of the eight years he's kept close tabs on his calf crops.

“One year, someone at the feedlot decided to cut all the tags out of the calves' ears when they received them,” he says. He still got pen performance data back. But what he was really looking for — individual performance data — was a wash-out.

Still, Dean and Karen have stayed with the MBN.

“When we bought into this program we felt that if it was going to do us any good, we had to be consistent about getting performance data back year after year,” he says. “That's why we decided to write the contract the way we did this year. I thought I'd run into resistance, but the buyers were more than happy to work with us. They'll obviously benefit, too.”

The Wangs recently finished tagging all of their 700+ cows with RFID. Come next spring, his crew, led by Darin Buerkle, will tag each calf with an RFID tag at branding. That tag will correspond to the cow's eartag.

“We've gone through some ups and downs in getting information back from feeders and packers,” says Buerkle. “But, it looks like we're getting to the point where we have the kinks worked out of the system.”

Linking With BQA

Producers who become certified through the Montana Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program are eligible to become involved in the MBN Feeder Cattle Certification program.

Although not all producers who become BQA certified take this next step, it's an important component of the “systems approach” utilized by the MBN. So far this year, the MBN has about 16,000 head of cattle carrying RFID tags.

A set of specific records are entered into a database when animals are tagged with MBN tags, says Lisa Duffey of Bozeman, MT, the MBN project coordinator. She's also a graduate student in agricultural education at Montana State University-Bozeman (MSU).

These private records include detailed vaccination records and dates of weaning and shipping. Duffey's job is to follow the animals through the production chain, and enter and compile the data collected by feeders and packers.

“Prior to shipping, we need detailed feedlot contact information in order to track the animals through the remaining production segments,” says Duffey. “If we don't have the complete information we can't follow up on the animals.”

Big-Time Tagging Guys

Brian Rainey and Travis Standley, MSU graduate students in animal science, provide the main field labor force for MBN. In the past two years, they've tagged nearly 12,000 head of ranchers' calves with Allflex Electronic Identification Ultra Tags. They also supply scanned tags to producers in a do-it-yourself operation.

“If we can't get to a ranch because of our class commitments, we can scan the tags into the computer and send the producer a worksheet,” Standley says. “Then the producer can fill it out and send the form back to us after he works his calves. We'll record the data in the computer system for him.”

Rainey says the MBN advisory committee has recently hooked up with eMerge Interactive of Sebastian, FL, to crunch their data. eMerge's CattleLog individual animal data collection and reporting system is used for data analysis and information exchange.

“The compatibility among tags and scanning systems is critical to the success of any data tracking/management program,” says Rainey.

“The durability of the tags has improved a lot over the past year,” he adds. “I haven't had a mis-scan yet — and the retention rate is great. As long as the tags are put in correctly, we haven't seen them come out.”

Growing Pains Paying Off

The Montana Stockgrowers Association (MSGA) and MSU have collaborated on the MBN from its inception. The program is supported through a federal grant.

“Our members clearly endorse this kind of effort,” says MSGA president John Swanz, Judith Gap. “We've already seen benefits in terms of better markets from network cattle.”

In a 2000 survey, MSU economists estimated that MBN involvement added $1.56/cwt. to steer calf prices and $1.09/cwt. to heifer calves.

Swanz says all 12,500 Montana cattle producers, representing more than 3 million head of cattle, are eligible to participate in the program.

Wang says MBN is “a great system.” And for the cost of the RFID eartag — $2/head — it's a tremendous bargain, he adds.

“Now, rather than me making the calls to a feedlot or packing plant and requesting data,” he says. “I have the support and name recognition of the Montana Beef Network.”