To hear Dwight Scott tell it, he’s been waiting for years for something like the South Dakota Certified Beef program to come along. Mr. Scott, whose family runs a commercial feedyard and a cow-calf herd near Letcher, S.D., has used individual electronic identification, in his own cattle and with his customers’ feeder cattle, since 1995. This new branded-beef program, he believes, should provide access to a premium market for producers who have invested in quality improvements along with source and process verification.

Individual identification began as a management tool for Mr. Scott and his customers, he says, but he always believed the market eventually would offer additional rewards for source- and process-verified cattle. With that goal in mind, Scott Cattle Company became the first to enroll in the program, which he says fits well with what they already are doing.

In addition to enrolling the calves from the family’s 250-head cow herd, Mr. Scott says he plans to encourage his feeding customers to participate. Most of them already meet program requirements, such as having Beef Quality Assurance certification and using individual electronic identification, he says. In addition to full traceability, the program requires that cattle are born, raised, fed and processed in South Dakota, age-verified at less than 30 months of age at slaughter and a minimum of 120 days on feed. The state-sponsored program is intended to keep cattle in South Dakota through feeding and processing, and organizers hope it will add value across the supply chain by building on the state’s reputation for high-quality beef cattle.

Over the years, Mr. Scott and his customers have used individual identification primarily as a tool for improving genetic selection and management decisions, he says. He has collected extensive performance and carcass data and worked closely with his customers in using the data to improve their calves’ performance. In the feedlot, the Scotts scan electronic tags and weigh each animal every time it comes through the processing chute, providing real-time data on average daily gains. At re-implant time, they employ ultrasound scanning to measure carcass traits in addition to weight, then sort cattle into marketing groups to optimize cost of gain, carcass quality and value on a grid-pricing system.

Improved management alone can justify the investment in individual-animal ID, Mr. Scott says, as long as producers make good use of the information they collect. He sites an example of one of his long-term feeding customers who has used individual performance and carcass data for selection decisions since 1995. The Scotts fed this producer’s calves in 1995, and their average value at slaughter was $750 per head. By 1999, after four years of selection and culling based on objective data, calves from the same herd had an average value of $911 using the same base price on the same grid. The $161 improvement, Mr. Scott says, resulted from a combination of heavier out-weights, better yield and quality grades, and a reduction in outlier cattle.

Other customers also have made improvements in genetic selection based on objective data. The data have shown, for example, that for retained-ownership customers, weaning weight often is not the best indicator of overall profitability.

Mr. Scott believes it will take some time for the program to gain enough recognition to bring significant price premiums for certified cattle. As the program grows, however, he hopes it will lead to expansion in the state’s processing sector and widespread demand for South Dakota beef.