High-tech feedyard sorting systems are taking off as technology catches up with value-based marketing.

It's a business in transition within an industry in transition. That's how Jim Meetz, Dighton, KS, describes his cattle feeding operation. He says a movement toward individual animal performance and away from managing cattle based on averages is the hallmark of this transition.

Meetz, manager of Lane County Feeders, is one of the leaders in this shift to "DNA to dinner plate" cattle management. Of course, today's electronic technology plays a huge role in allowing cattlemen to measure, track and exploit the potential of each animal.

Lane County Feeders' investment in the future is a feedyard sorting system that uses an array of technologies to produce an electronic performance profile for each animal fed.

"We're not going to get away with feeding for averages and producing commodity beef for very much longer," says Meetz. "That's why we're investing in systems that help manage the individual for its potential."

Two years ago, Lane County Feeders installed Accu-Trac, the electronic cattle management system designed by Micro Beef Technologies Inc., Amarillo, TX. The system uses a combination of objective measurements - live weight, backfat thickness and external dimensions - to predict each animal's optimum marketing date. But, Accu-Trac does more, according to Matt Cravey of Micro Beef.

"The system also produces a software profile that stays with each animal from the ranch through the packing plant," says Cravey. "This individual animal information benefits everyone along the way - for better genetic decisions by ranchers, more dollars for feeders and increased value for packers and consumers."

Beyond Routine Sorting The sorting process at Lane County Feeders begins at receiving when the cattle are first marked with an electronic ear tag. Feeder calves are video scanned for frame score, and then backfat thickness is measured using ultrasound.

The system calculates each animal's rate of growth and projects days to finish for optimum profit. The cattle are sorted according to their endpoint potential and co-mingled with similar-performing animals. To fine-tune management during the final feeding period, the calves are measured and sorted again during re-implanting, usually 60-75 days later.

Sorting and tracking feeder cattle through finishing may seem routine for ultrasonic-based management systems. But, with Accu-Trac, the integration of other economic components takes the technology to another level. Using advanced economic equations, Accu-Trac allows each animal to be marketed at its maximum economic endpoint, Cravey says.

By also using Cornell University's Value Discovery Program, which uses performance and carcass composition equations, the energy value of the ration is coupled with the feed requirements of each animal to determine individual consumption. The formula partitions the pen's feed to individual animals daily over the feeding period.

"Customers are billed according to what each animal consumes," says Meetz. "We don't think we're necessarily saving money in feed costs, but we are maximizing each animal's performance." He says that the Cornell system is 98-99% accurate in assigning feed costs to individual animals.

This system offers additional advantages, according to Meetz. It's critical in his 42,000-head feedyard to keep pens full to capacity, and it's essential that marketings be made on a pen-ready basis. He also says the live performance and carcass merit information provided back to cow/calf producers can be invaluable.

"It's unbelievable how much information can be generated from this system," says Meetz. He admits the information can initially be a bit overwhelming, but he says it doesn't take long to begin understanding the data and how to put it to work.

Meetz and Cravey agree a key to the system is a packer who is willing to work within the individual identification system.

"The carcass data ties everything together for the rancher. What he does with it from there is up to him," says Meetz. "Most ranchers, depending on the level of management skills, will be able to use this information in nearly every phase of production."

Cravey emphasizes that Accu-Trac's additional value is significantly higher when used in an integrated production system.

Meetz adds that Accu-Trac offers feeder customers an advantage because they know up front what the cost will be to reach the target for the animals they're feeding - helping manage risk under a wide variety of economic and production conditions.

Micro Beef Technologies also has its high-profile sorting system in place at Decatur County Feedyard in Oberlin, KS. Owner/manager Warren Weibert says Accu-Trac technology can help producers improve their genetics as well as help retained ownership customers get paid for the true value of their animals.

Better Than The Eye? Is electronic cattle management and all the technology that goes into it better than "eyeball" sorting, or that much better than the simpler ultrasound measurements common in many feedyards around the country? Ask one of the pioneers in both ultrasound and high-tech sorting.

"These new tools give us an alternative to the experienced eye," says Kansas State University's (KSU) John Brethour. "And they help move us away from the batch marketing procedures prevalent in the industry which probably represent the most inefficient practice in the beef production process today."

Working at the KSU Agricultural Research Center at Hays, Brethour developed and patented a high-tech, commercial sorting method licensed to Cattle Performance Enhancement Co. (CPEC), Oakley, KS.

Brethour says that while there are substantial technological differences between the KSU-CPEC system and Accu-Trac - and the marketing strategies they present - both have the objective of maximizing profit for the producer. He calls electronic sorting a "just-in-time" production strategy that helps build quality control into the cattle feeding business.

"If we look at the optimal number of days to feed cattle, we'll usually see a range of 120 days from when the first and last animals ought to be sold," states Brethour. "And, if there is an ideal day to market an individual animal, we can see an average of about $1 per head loss for every day that ideal day is missed."

And, in today's clean-shaven cattle feeding business, a missed market can spell disaster. As the industry begins to walk the talk of value-based marketing, individual animal management and high-tech sorting becomes even more critical.

"We've had more interest in grade and yield marketing than ever before," says Brethour. "It seems to me that some kind of sorting program is essential as we go more into value-based marketing."

Overweight and overfat penalties, coupled with extra cost of feed wasted on overfeeding, especially concern Brethour. But, losses from cattle sold too light can be just as severe.

The most profitable component of any sorting system is to identify those cattle that should be held another 30 days to get the extra gain on them, according to Brethour. The other use of sorting is to reduce the outliers.

"We all look at sorting as a means to reduce outliers," adds Brethour. A lot of that income could stay with the primary owners. He cautions, though, that this type of sorting is only useful when cattle are being sold on a grade and yield basis. The KSU-CPEC system is dynamic - nearly any carcass grid can be dovetailed into the software and market endpoints can be determined based on those prices.

Jim Almond, J.B Grierson Co., Hysham, MT, began employing Brethour's sorting technology in his cattle feeding regime nine years ago and is sold on the system.

"It benefits us most by being able to separate the Choice and Select cattle and manage them accordingly," says Almond. "The credibility of the predictions is getting better all the time. There's no question it pays."

He estimates he's gaining about $15/head with Brethour's one-time electronic sorting program that also incorporates marbling measurements.

Almond sorts 4-10 weeks after weaning, placing up to 2,800 feeder calves into eight feeding groups. Then, he matches growing and finishing rations to Brethour's evaluation. The goal is to move as many cattle that might otherwise grade Select to Choice - and add as much carcass weight possible without overfeeding.

Last year, though, he went back to sorting based on live weight and eyeball measurements. The eyeball system didn't work as well, and Almond's wishing he'd stayed with sorting electronically.

"The only real indication I have now is to feed until I start getting Yield Grade 4s, and then it's too late," he explains. "But, that's absolutely the worst thing to do." Without electronic sorting, Almond agrees, the tendency is to market underfinished and underweight cattle.

"I'm not saying there isn't room for human judgement - I'm just saying this system provides an objective measurement that works for us," he adds. "The economics of the industry today dictate that we use some kind of sorting system like this."

The greater overall value in these types of sorting systems may be in helping ranchers and feeders become more aware of the kind of cattle they are producing, Brethour says.

"No matter the grid you're working with, once you go through the exercise you begin to focus on the carcass and carcass value," he says. "And, there's no question that when you have more information about your cattle, you do a better job for yourself and provide a better product all the way along the line."