With all that's been written and said about the age- and source-verification process, there's still a lot of confusion.

The most common comment is that an eartag isn't going to bring a rancher a dime more for a calf. That's absolutely true, unless there's some kind of information of value to someone in the market chain that can be traced to the animal. And to be of value, that information has to be backed by credible, verifiable and auditable information.

Age verification is driving most traceability programs. But, as mandatory country of origin labeling (COOL) matures in the industry — whether you like it or not — it will be tied to some type of production and management records and the verifiable identity of an animal or group of animals.

The basis for verification

Since the loss of beef-export markets in December 2003, most countries have resumed beef trade with the U.S. However, there's a different set of export rules than pre-BSE, and the rules can differ by importing country.

Most ranchers and feeders are concerned about the age requirements for export to Japan. These require imported beef and beef products (offal) from the U.S. to originate from cattle younger than 21 months.

USDA has developed export rules under the Beef Export Verification (BEV) program to fit Japan's demands for age verification. These rules apply to producers, alliances, feedlots, packers and processors or anyone who at any point places beef in the export supply chain.

These suppliers must comply with the specified product requirements of the BEV program through a USDA-approved Quality Systems Assessment (QSA) Program or Process Verified Program (PVP). QSAs and PVPs include a written protocol for how cattle are managed and a description of the records that verify production data.

A PVP may verify and audit only age and source — or it may also include natural claims, health management claims or other attributes.

Records, records, records

The key item in this new era of source and age verification is records and documentation, says John Hall, Idaho Extension beef specialist. Unfortunately, there are no standardized forms that fit all PVP or QSA programs (although the required information is essentially the same).

Each program has its own forms, but by keeping certain basic types of information, you can be ready for source and age verification.

Here are basic recommendations:

  • Cattle to be age and source verified must be uniquely identified, which, in most cases, means electronic ID. Freeze branding cows is another option.

  • Keep detailed calving records such as the IRM Red Book. This includes calf ID, dam ID, calving date and sex of calf. At the very least, record the date the first calf was born and the day the last calf was born to serve as documentation for the entire group. Keep records in a safe, readily accessible location.

  • Keep records of all cattle sales.

  • Become a Beef Quality Assurance (BQA)-certified producer.

  • Keep BQA records up to date as required. Record all vaccinations, dewormings, implants or health treatments.

Records must be kept for three years after an animal's birth. Ranch audits may occur on a regular basis. Producers will need to show the actual records to auditors from the QSA or PVP program if requested. In almost all cases, cattle destined for a source- and age-verification program will need to be tagged with an electronic eartag.

In most cases, the tag will have to be applied by the cow-calf producer before the animal enters commerce or is moved from the premises of origin. In some cases, tags can be applied by the particular program or feeder that purchases or receives the cattle.

Export qualification programs have no relationship with the National Animal Identification System.

Ranchers are encouraged to:

  • Plan ahead when considering entry into an age- and source-verification plan.

  • Work with marketers well in advance of any price agreements.

  • Seek various market opportunities and buyers who are experienced in marketing age- and source-verified cattle.

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