“We've received premiums for our cattle every year we've used electronic ID (EID) tags,” says Roger Koberstein of Koberstein Farms at Holyoke, CO. In fact, compared to same-class, same-weight cattle selling in the same region at the same time, his calves have garnered $5-$15/cwt. since 2004.
The premiums stem largely from value-added programs that Koberstein calves qualify for, verified with EID: Preconditioned, Japanese export, Certified Angus Beef and Natural.
That's why Koberstein began using EID tags. When Japan established the age limit on export-eligible cattle in the wake of BSE, rather than fuss over logic and politics, Koberstein exploited the opportunity to qualify his cattle for the new export requirements via EID and enrollment in a third-party source and age verification program.
That's also why he's never confused EID with a standardized national animal ID program.
“I always considered the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) to be an animal health program, which it is,” Koberstein says. “The EID tags that can be used for NAIS are management tools. Since I started using them, I've tried to milk every potential from them I can think of.”
It's a lengthy list that includes grazing, breeding and calving management; marketing; junior livestock shows; and agricultural advocacy.
Adding net return
The first year Koberstein used EID to make calves eligible for export to Japan, he tagged only the calves using passive EID tags. Passive tags contain no battery and can only be read from short distances think inches. Armed with a laptop computer, a wand that reads the passive electronic tag and primitive software, he also used the EID to build a database that made loading and shipping easier.
At the same time, as beef superintendent for Phillips County Fair, Koberstein led the charge to use passive EID in conjunction with retinal imaging to identify and verify junior livestock exhibits. He now helps six other county fairs use the technology, too.
By the next year, Koberstein began seeing the potential for tagging his cows and bulls electronically.
All his commercial cows are bred once artificially. Koberstein can easily input breeding information and dates for each cow with a scan of the ear tag and a couple of clicks on the computer. He added a barcode reader that same year to scan the barcodes from vaccine and therapeutic packages to accompany each calf's animal health record.
“EID removes the human error. You don't have to worry about someone misreading a number,” Koberstein says.
When Koberstein tagged his cows with active EID, he also could obtain quick and accurate pasture inventories. Active tags contain a battery; the ones he uses can be read from up to a half-mile away. In fact, when some of his cows pushed through a fence during a western Nebraska blizzard in October, Koberstein immediately knew which cows were missing and had a description of them.
Koberstein tests all cows and calves for persistent infection with bovine viral diarrhea (PI-BVD). By adding a small wireless printer, he can print labels for the samples as they're collected.
This year, Koberstein added weather stations and a data logger, which, in simple terms, tracks the position and movement of the long-range active tags in his cows.
“If you can tell where cattle are spending most of their time in a pasture, you can get a better feel for when pastures need to be rotated,” Koberstein says. “Around here we typically rotate pastures based on days. But, based on moisture and grazing patterns, we might be able to graze more days in a pasture or see that we need to rotate them sooner.”
Coupling cattle movement and weather data, Koberstein is building a model that will tell him how much pasture how many grazing days he should have based on the amount of moisture received, compared to historic data.
Based on individual animal movement, Koberstein can also tell which and when cows are in heat, and identify which bull bred which cow. For that matter he can monitor bull libido.
With the active, long-range EID tags in his cows, come calving time, Koberstein can identify cows without disturbing them. Via a handheld computer, he quickly can see if a cow has any history of calving problems.
In some ways, all this pales in comparison to how Koberstein is utilizing EID to help consumers understand more about the beef he produces.
A few years ago, Koberstein began a branded-beef business with a twist. If you want Colorado Natural Best Beef, team up with as many neighbors as you want, but the order is for one carcass, period.
“It was born with the idea of adding value to the cattle that don't meet our load-lot specifications,” Koberstein explains. In recent years, he's marketed cattle via Superior Video in the summer for fall delivery. Any of those later-calving, lighter or frozen-eared types go into the branded program.
Next Page: Start small, compare options
As homegrown beef programs often go, this one began locally. Last year, Koberstein had an epiphany of sorts. He started wondering how customers 100 miles away, along Colorado's urbanized Front Range, could learn more about beef in general and his beef, specifically.
Now, if you log onto www.coloradonaturalbestbeef.com, you can place a deposit for the live animal that will end up in your freezer. Once the deposit is made, you receive a code that allows you to see the animal you're buying, as well as pictures and performance information that are updated every 30 days or so.
“We make it interactive,” Koberstein explains. “If consumers have questions about our beef, what they're fed and how they're treated, we can talk with them. It's our way of tying the consumer to the food they eat, to the beef we're producing for them; it's our way of tying our program to the consumer.
“We went to the Internet with it because we believe it's time for producers to tell their story. Meat and agricultural products are taking such a bad rap in the media, we feel like we all have to start telling our story.”
As harvest nears, buyers receive contact information for the USDA-inspected facility where their cattle will be processed. The customer contacts the processor to specify cutting and packaging. When each animal is harvested, all cuts are weighed. At the end, the customer has each package of meat labeled with specific weight and cut information, along with an inventory of how many packages of which cut they're receiving. Plus, Koberstein reaps the added benefit of valuable carcass yield data for genetic selection.
Koberstein says customers range from professionals and tradesmen, to consumers longing for the farm or ranch their parents or grandparents once had. Ultimately, he hopes to expand the notion to hogs, goats and sheep, too.
Start small, compare options
None of the EID technology Koberstein employs comes for free, obviously. But, he's quick to point out his investment in EID technology has returned $2-$3 for every $1 invested.
“The first year, all I had was a laptop computer, wand reader and some software,” Koberstein says. “Now, we're up to what I consider to be the Cadillac system, a waterproof, field-rugged, weatherproof handheld computer from Fort Supply Technologies, along with their software and active EID tags.”
For folks just starting with EID for management, Koberstein says a laptop or handheld computer and a wand reader will go a long way. For producers with fewer than 150 head, he recommends teaming up with other producers to buy and share the same reader equipment. Past 150 head, he believes you're money ahead to own the equipment yourself.
In either case, Koberstein recommends spending more money upfront to get the most rugged equipment available. Early on, he tried to save money on laptops designed for the office rather than the cattle chute. “Your return on investment is higher buying the ruggedized equipment first,” he says.
As for choosing third-party verification programs, Koberstein stresses evaluating a number of them. “They all have to comply with the same standards, but they each offer different services that come at vastly different costs,” he says.
Moreover, Koberstein emphasizes, “If you're thinking about buying EID equipment for management and marketing, now's the time to do it, while those premiums still exist.”
Of course, there are benefits beyond premiums. When you manage cattle individually with EID, Koberstein says you become more conscious about how you manage the cattle and why. As you market cattle that way, you become more identifiable in the marketplace, too, which is positive when you're proud of the cattle you're raising.
“You let your mind wander and you think of more and more ways you can use EID in management,” Koberstein says.