Before there was a postal service, telephone or e-mail, people talked face to face. If separated by much distance, they sent a courier and hoped he survived to deliver the message.
By contrast, communications today move at light speed. Machines are changing the way feedlots do business the same way the Wright Brothers revolutionized transportation and warfare.
Even the routine of driving a feed truck has been transformed. At some yards, the Global Positioning Satellite network sets off an alarm if the feed truck is about to deliver rations to the wrong feed bunk.
But communications technology promises to do much more than change routine tasks. Advanced communication devices promise to create a technological upheaval in beef genetics by allowing the industry to track the performance of individual animals from ranch to feedlot to packing plant.
The implications are amazing. Ranchers could use beef quality data from packers to improveherd genetics. Feedlots could use the data to decide which ranches they want to deal with.
The cattle industry could shift from a commodity business to one that rewards quality with higher prices. And the industry could reverse the long decline in consumer demand by offering a consistently better tasting product.
Though in its infancy, there are signs the revolution is gathering momentum. More cattlemen, feeders and packers are now managing cattle as individuals rather than groups.
"It used to be that when you brought it up, people would give you a big yawn and a glazed look," says Kathy Cornett, president of McCormick Advertising, an agency that provides Internet and other communications services to the industry. "They want to talk about it now."
Just 10 years ago, tracking individual animals involved a blizzard of paper and a lot of manpower. Today, with computers, electronic ID tags, high-speed data transmission networks and specialized software, the job is much less daunting.
Computers sort the data. Electronic tags allow easy tracking of the animal. Software makes the system work. But it is communications devices and data transmission networks that tie the system together by allowing managers to easily collect and access data and share it with other segments, and vice-versa.
One example is Micro Chemical Inc., of Amarillo, TX. It developed its Accu Trac Electronic Cattle Management System to allow individual animal tracking with little extra work. It begins at the ranch where genetic background, birth and weaning weights and health history are recorded for each animal, preferably on a computer file. Each animal also gets an electronic ID tag.
At the feedyard, size, weight, health and performance data are added. For instance, when the animal arrives, video cameras capture an image and send the image data to a computer, which automatically calculates external measurements. Then the animal enters an automatic weighing station.
Next, backfat is measured at the ultrasound chute. At the final stop - a modified squeeze chute - the measurements are combined with other data including the animal's health history. When reimplants are done, the process is repeated. All this data is merged with the genetic data supplied by ranchers.
Some benefits materialize before the animal leaves the feedlot. For instance, feedlot measurement data allows feeders to sort animals by projected marketing date. Thus, animals that will finish faster are grouped, as are animals that require longer feeding.
This allows feeders to avoid overfeeding animals, or selling them before they're ready. That, in turn, avoids packer discounts for underweight or overweight cattle.
"It takes you from managing groups of animals for an average sale date to managing individual animals for optimum economic sale date," says Glen Pratt, Micro Chemical co-owner.
At the slaughter plant, packers can record carcass performance data, though they probably will use a carcass ID number different than the electronic ear tag number. However, Micro Chemical offers a service to reconcile the two numbers to keep records straight.
If such systems take a wide hold, the cattle industry will never be the same. It may sound like Buck Rogers stuff, but the computers, software and data transmission lines to make it happen already exist. For a vanguard of ranchers, feeders and packers who are already on board, the future is now.
The communications revolution has created thousands of devices that help machines communicate with computers. One example is the Lantronix universal thin server, used by potato chip makers and Sea World. It can be connected to thousands of machines, sensors or measurement devices, such as scales, bar code readers, video cameras, thermometers and the calipers used to measure the thickness of potato chips.
How would it help feedlots? The company says the universal thin server could be combined with sensors that record moisture and temperatures in manure composting operations.
The thin server functions like a small computer. It can be set to send information back to the front office computer whenever heat or moisture levels in the manure drop too low. This would save feedlot personnel the time it takes to take regular measurements.
There are thousands of other devices on the market. Here's how to find them:
--- Read the technology ads that appear in trade magazines such as BEEF.
--- Tell cattle industry technology firms what you want automated.
--- Ask other feeders what works.
--- Invite computer and communications experts to speak to cattle industry gatherings about their latest products.
--- Read business equipment and computer catalogs.
--- Use the Internet to search for the latest computer, communications and automation advances.
--- Use the Internet to check Extension Service web sites for technology tips.
Before you spend big on the latest communications advances, take a look at older, less expensive devices.
--- More feeders are using the Internet to gather business information. If your modem is slow, consider a new one. A slow modem wastes time.
If you buy a faster modem, it may work slowly if your computer is old. If your computer and modem are up to speed, but Internet access is still slow, the problem may be your phone company. Some rural exchanges need new service improvements before modems will work at or near their rated speeds.
--- Don't forget about the phone bill. Telephone companies have cut long-distance prices as they've computerized their networks and turned to fiber optic cables. The trick is to find the company that offers the lowest prices. Even a penny-a-minute cut in price will save a lot of money over time.
Ask phone companies to examine your last long distance bill and tell you how much they would charge for the same service. AT&T, for example, says it will do this.
If a company won't do this, ask for its rate schedule and compute the charges yourself. But be sure to ask about the fine print. For example, some companies may raise the per-minute charge if your call lasts more than a specified number of minutes. Other companies may charge a monthly fee for obtaining their low per-minute rate. Some companies offer more than one pricing plan, so ask if they have more than one.
Sound out other feeders about what they pay. Ask about the quality of service. Check the format for each company's phone bill to make sure it won't cause problems obtaining a business tax deduction for business phone calls.
Shop for group rates. The Texas Cattle Feeders Association, for instance, obtained a favorable group rate from MCI for members who wanted to take advantage of a group plan.
If you find a plan you like, check periodically to make sure you can't get a better deal down the line with some other supplier
--- If you do a lot of phone time, using a headset frees up your hands. A wireless headset will allow you to move around the office as you talk.