Five years ago the National Cattlemen's Beef Association set a goal of regaining market share.

Improving carcass quality became a top priority and the key answer to saving the beef industry and its producers. A value based marketing task force was setup to implement changes and shift the industry into a carcass merit mode. The key to tying all the necessary changes together was a plan to develop a nationwide cattle identification system. And today that national system is not far from launching its way onto every ranch in the United States.

The whole thing that drives the national EID program is that we've lost market share. We've developed new products and new ways to prepare products, but we've never really looked at a system to improve the raw product-the cattle coming into a packing plant," says Jimme Wilson, chairman of the USA Cattle Identification Service, Trout Creek, Mont.

How close are we?

In 1997 a task force was identified to investigate and evaluate the feasibility of creating a national cattle identification system. Research and studies were conducted and input was sought from experts and grassroots producers. Packers even installed the necessary trolley tracking and readers. Also a subcontractor to provide the database was determined, and a board of governors was established for the ID corporation. Finally, in the fall of 1999 a paper was submitted to approve start up.

"We could start up tomorrow if we can come up with the funds," says Mr. Wilson. "So far NCBA and some Beef Board projects have provided all the financing. But it should be a total industry effort, not just the 40,000 cattlemen that represent the membership of NCBA. And once we get that seed money and hire a few people to work on the project full time, we're ready to begin and that could happen in the first part of 2000."

Montana and Iowa already have extensive EID systems in place and would likely serve as pilot projects to provide the numbers of cattle needed. Montana's program alone has enough cattle to fill the goal for the first year. After that it's just a matter of building numbers.

Why go national?

Why has NCBA worked so diligently to get a national system in place?

"If we're going to make an industry wide effort to produce a better product that's conistent and tender," says Mr. Wilson, "we can't do it with a quarter of a million head when there's 50 million being graded each year."

To have the numbers needed to change consumers every eating experience takes a majority of the raw product being produced. And the majority of the producers who are contributing the raw product are not producers with 500 or more head of cattle. Many are producers with full time jobs who have 35 head and sell 14 steers through the auction market each year.

"There's a lot of work that goes into getting the information back to the producer accurately and in a timely manner," says Courtney Oldham, marketing manager for AgInfoLink. "We help the producer learn to use the EID equipment and our data collection software, help track the animals through each production segment and generate the information on each animal. We have the best chance of success with an association or an alliance where within that one client we have a larger and cooperative customer base. At this time, it's not practical for us to provide information tracking services to small independent producers."

Mr. Wilson says that in order to have 50 million head involved, it's going to take one entity to provide an umbrella for all sizes of producers.

Calvin Gunter, product manager for Allflex, agrees that a national system is a necessary tool to help track the information. "The only way a producer can get information back now is if he's retained ownership or worked out an arrangement with his buyer," he says. "It takes a tremendous amount of vertical cooperation. The only exception to that is if NCBA's cattle ID system takes off. It would sidestep all that and provide a clearing house, making it easier to get the information."

How would it function?

USACIS will be formed as a non-profit extension of the Value Based Marketing Task Force with NCBA providing oversight.

"The national system would establish a set of standards," says Mr. Wilson. "So even if there's 20 different brands of tags out there, they will all have to be able to be read with a universal reader. And a database provider will be subcontracted to manage the national information database."

USACIS would act as an umbrella organization so all information and products can interface. An independent producer can get a number or tag assigned to him from an organization, such as a state or breed association. Then the national database would deliver the information back to the producer so he can evaluate and improve genetics or management-no matter if he entered five head of steers or 1,000 head.

Government intervention

Involvement in USACIS would be voluntary and done with a minimal user fee. But time may be limited for that option. With 23 major cattle producing countries having some form of trace back and Canada going mandatory the first part of this year, it may just be a matter of time before the U.S. government forces us to do the same.

"We're anxious to start," says Mr. Wilson, " But it's a feeling within NCBA that we've never relied on the government for funding and we're reluctant to start."

Mr. Wilson says that in England their disease problems have led to mandatory individual identification of cattle, costing them about $12 million annually with about 350 bureaucrats running the program.
"We don't want to get into a deal like that," he says. "If something happens in the U.S. and they say we need an ID system, it would be nice to already have one in place-one that is less expensive that we as cattlemen have designed and can control."

One downside to government control, unlike USACIS, all information would be public and the system would be mandatory.

One of the biggest fears with EID is liability. "This is the biggest misconception," says Mr. Gunter. "I can track a piece of steak down through the system now. What we have right today is the liability without the records to prove what's been done to the animal. Electronic identification is more protection than it is risk. A national system would be beneficial to small and large producers and to the industry as a whole."

Going through the system

How does your calves' information find its way back to you? Courtney Oldham, marketing manager at AgInfoLink says that the process is quite simple, regardless of whether or not you're computer literate.

"You don't have to own or know how to use a computer with EID," she says. "You can use your own computer and software program or you can use a Cattle Card. The Cattle Card is like a postcard with a bar-code label on it to correspond with each animal. All you have to do is check some boxes to tell us what's been done and we do the rest."
Ms. Oldham has outlined the following example of how information flows with the AgInfoLink system.

* Place EID tag in calf's ear.

* Set up a list of predefined procedures that will happen when an animal walks into chute on a certain day. Or check boxes on Cattle Card.

* Calf enters chute, tag is scanned and procedures are automatically entered into animal's record.

* Chute side computer will also show all data that has been prerecorded (ie. birthdate, sex, breed, dam i.d., etc).

* May enter any additional information, such as additional medications not given to the rest of herd or notes of sickness or lameness. Electronic thermometers and scaleheads also can be used to automatically obtain temperatures and weights.

* E-mail file of day's work or mail Cattle Cards to AgInfoLink.

* Information is downloaded into AgInfoLink's BeefLink software program. This allows the data to follow the animals to their next location.

* Send cattle to a feedyard with interfacing system, Data such as an in-weight and vaccinations are collected and sent to AgInfoLink. Then they pass that data back to you via e-mail or hard copy.

* Using the data and AgInfoLink's reporting tools, you can create reports and graphs that allow you to check the average daily gain, health status and overall performance of each animal.

* When cattle are harvested, packing plant data is sent to AgInfoLink and is then passed back to previous animal owners allowing further evaluation of animal performance.