As the beef industry moves into the 21st century and toward tracking animals from pasture to plate, more producers are realizing the value of individual animal identification.

It's an industry move that should help address beef quality concerns as well as provide producers with the analytical tools for herd management and improvement.

But managing that information could be difficult without a computer software program geared to the cow/calf operation.

Which means many beef producers may want to get computerized for the next century. In 1996, only 13% of all cow/calf producers used a computer located on or off the operation to maintain records on their beef herds, according to a National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) study.

Getting Computerized The good news is it's becoming easier for producers to get computerized, as software programs to specifically handle cow/calf production records are readily available. But what software suits your cow/calf operation? And how do you get started?

Oklahoma State University (OSU) researchers Sally Dolezal and Laura Lester compiled a summary of 13 commercially available cow/calf software packages (see Table 1). The programs range in price from free to $849 and many accommodate both commercial and seedstock cattle needs. Most of the companies also offer free demonstration versions of their software on their Web site.

To request a copy of the complete Cow/Calf Production Software report (CR-3279) visit the OSU Web site at www.ansi.okstate.edu\exten\beef\ or contact Amanda Hesser, 201 Animal Science Building, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK 74078; phone 405/744-6060; e-mail hesser@ okstate.edu.

Before purchasing a cow/calf production software program, you'll need to do your homework. To help narrow down which software program suits your operation, producers should have an idea of the type of information they want from a software program. Oklahoma State's Sally Dolezal says the following criteria can help evaluate programs:

* Know what records you want to keep on the cow, sire, calf and herd.

* Ask yourself questions like: Are inventory records important? What summary reports are necessary? Do I want a program that generates SPA (Standardized Performance Analysis) values?

* Find out what the program's computer requirements are and if they are compatible with your own personal computer.

"Unless I've seen or talked to a producer a couple times, I don't feel comfortable selling a software program to them," says Jack Tomac of Rapid City, SD. "Impulse buyers make me nervous."

Tomac started Tomac AgWare in 1988 when he realized there was a need for assisting producers with computerized record keeping. Today, he offers the herd management system CowSense and also offers some crop and accounting packages.

Over the years, he's noted that more producers are becoming computerized because they want to streamline their recordkeeping. "Computers are becoming as common a part of the household as a TV or VCR," Tomac says.

However, he says many producers make the mistake of using whatever software comes with the computer.

"Producers need to realize there is software available that can do much more for their cow/calf operation," he says. "You may as well purchase software that can be useful."

Getting Computerized Sturgis, SD, producers Don and Donna Whitehead bought their first cow/calf computer software six years ago. The Whiteheads run about 80 purebred Charolais and 50 black commercial cows. They also buy 75 replacement heifers each year.

Don says he wanted to keep records on the computer to help him make better culling decisions. "I wanted to evaluate each individual cow, and make culling decisions accordingly," Don says.

"Before we kept computerized records, I'd see a cow bring in a small calf and she'd go down the road. After keeping records, I had a lot of surprises as to what kinds of cows raised what calves."

The Whiteheads started with the Cow Sense commercial package which - like many of the programs available - utilizes individual calf weights, calculates adjusted weights and ratios and has fields to record carcass quality and feedlot performance.

They have since upgraded to the purebred package now that they sell some purebred bulls with Donna's father. The Cow Sense Purebred mode adds pedigrees and EPDs, as well as fields for registrations. It can also link to the optional Sale Manager which prepares sale sheets with performance data, tracks customers and purchases, prints mailing labels and can clerk the sale.

"When bull buyers come, I can make a query as to their EPD specifications and it brings up everything," says Don.

For the Whiteheads looking up records on the computer from 4-5 years back also helps them see trends. For example, Don says, "As a cow gets older you can monitor when her calf weights drop off. That's really helped in culling decisions on the commercial cows."

He especially watches weaning weights and when calves are born. "I want 80% of the calves born within the first 21 days and when calves are weaned they should be 50% of the cows weight. You wouldn't be able to calculate all that by hand." With the purebred herd their computerized records have helped track animals for replacement heifers.

"It's another tool to help you," Don says. "Seventy-five percent of the battle is just getting into the program and getting your hands dirty."

Trial And Error Tomac agrees. His advice to producers starting out with a new software programs is this, "Go in there and don't be scared. You're not going to lose any data."

To get started with computerized records, Tomac suggests entering cow and bull data and then following through a cycle of calving, breeding, weaning weights, yearling weights and carcass data.

Another tip: Tomac says what kind of computer you have doesn't matter as much as local service. He says it's important to buy a computer that offers local service assistance.

The same is true of the software package you purchase. Determine the level and cost of software support that will be provided by the company. In addition, some programs have specific cattle information that is required before the program will work.

Finally, whichever software you choose, many offer a trial version to help you be certain the program fits your needs.