Many of your herd records may be obsolete in the not-so-distant future. The numbers you've recorded to evaluate herd averages for weights and rates of gain could become nearly useless as new technology changes our cattle evaluation system. Rather than evaluating herd averages, many beef producers will soon implement individual animal management, a practice made possible through electronic identification (EID).

"We have designed and geared all of our management practices in the cattle industry around the 100 head to 200 head pen. Everything we think about and know how to evaluate is a pen average," says Bill Mies, professor of animal science at Texas A & M University. "There's average weight, average dressing percent, average feeding efficiency and an average price. EID allows you to tear that 200 pen apart and make it 200 individuals to manage. And so the criteria for success are going to change. It's not going to be 'what's your average?' It will be 'what was your range? How close and uniform were they?' We'll be able to manage that, and it's going to start a whole new era in the cattle business."

Electronic identification is only the tool that's spurring this new era. It's the value of the data and new management practices inspired by the data that is the driving force. EID only opens the door for individual animal management. And there is as much efficiency to be gained in this new era through the management of individuals as what was accomplished in the management of pens.

Relatively new technology for ranchers, EID can be confusing, misunderstood and usually undervalued. But ask anyone involved with EID how integral it is becoming to the industry, and you'll hear a similar answer from all, "It's just a matter of time before EID is just a cost of doing business." Just like vaccinations and winter feed supplies are costs of doing business. And if you haven't seriously considered the benefits of EID and individual animal management on your operation, it may be time that you did.

A new manager in town

To reap the rewards of EID you have to become a new kind of manager. One who doesn't think about averages anymore, but one who can evaluate and manage each individual animal he owns.

"There's nothing magic about EID," says Dr. Mies. "But it makes data collection and information automatic and easy to gather. It's easier than anything we've done with a Big Chief tablet and pencil in the past."

One of the greatest values EID can bring to your operation is through genetic selection. As the industry focuses on end product goals, so should the cow-calf producer. And EID is one of the only tools that can deliver the necessary carcass information.

Commercial producer, Bill Bergin Jr., Roundup, Mont., joined the Montana Beef Network, which uses EID, for just that reason-to get downstream data back on his calves. "Once we get the data back, we analyze it to find out which calves were profitable," says Mr. Bergin. "Then we choose replacement heifers accordingly. We want to know exactly what each cow is producing so that any one cow isn't dragging down the rest in terms of overall herd performance."

EID also fit into Mr. Bergin's goals for his preconditioning program. "We were looking ahead into a rapidly changing industry," he says. "And you may not receive a premium for preconditioning, but we certainly don't want to be discounted for not doing it. By using EID, we can verify what's been done and build a solid reputation for our calves."

The feeding phase

The new method of management also means that everyone has a stake in the feeding phase. Whether you sell at weaning or retain ownership, your profitability at this phase is as important as your profitability when the calves are on your ranch.

"I have been using individual animal management for the past three years and electronic ID for the past two," says Brian Mogler, feeder in Alvord, Iowa. "The first year we didn't use EID and it was a nightmare. We lost 20 percent of the data due to human error. But now we have EID tags, scanners, thermometers and four electronic scales.

The reason Mr. Mogler went to EID and individual animal management was pen size. In his 3,500-head feedlot, pens range from 60 head to 500 head per pen. And pens are usually made up of calves from three to four different sources. To be able to track these commingled cattle and help evaluate how each source's calves were doing, EID was the only way to go.

"We can now eliminate sources of calves if their cattle aren't performing for us," Mr. Mogler says. "Or we'll work with that rancher to help him make improvements so that we both can be profitable."

Mr. Mogler evaluates cattle at 30 and 50 days into feeding. If they are poor performers he eliminates the outliers and saves the extra dollars it takes to feed them another 120 days.

"We really like to see cattle come in here with tags," he says. "That way we know what products have already been given. We save a lot of money not triplicating vaccines. We can also evaluate the health records and history to see how the animal's health and treatment affected the final carcass."

Mr. Mogler found that his customers were hungering for the information. "They wanted to know how to make their calves better for me, even if they weren't retaining ownership," he says. "It's built a tremendous relationship between us. We both know we're in this business for the long haul and this is the only way to succeed."

Importance to an industry

As producers begin to thrive in the new era of management so too will the cattle industry as a whole. "It's going to change the industry because we'll actually know what we're making," says Dr. Mies. "We'll be able to target the cattle. Right now we've got a lot that don't hit the target for weight, size, fat and muscle size. Using EID will help us take those missed darts and bring them into the bullseye."

Those missed darts may be what's been holding the industry back from reaching the goal of regaining beef's market share. New products, new brands, new cuts and new quality standards are evolving to increase consumer demand. And EID is the key.

"The industry has the opportunity to produce large numbers of animals that are targeted to specific products," says Calvin Gunter, product manager for Allflex. "Consumers are demanding more specialized products. But packers and purveyors need to work with a raw material that's well defined from animals that are similar. Individual animal management starting at the ranch makes that possible."

Another facet of industry importance includes export markets. Asian, Mexican and European countries may seem like distant places, but as you ride the range in the United States your cattle could be traveling overseas.

"At this point we're keeping up and that's about it," says Mr. Gunter. "Because of BSE (bovine spongiform encephelopathy) and other disease scares, Ireland, Australia and other European countries have national identification systems in the works," he says. " If we want to continue exporting we're going to have to ID these cattle. Regardless if it's global or domestic, the only way we're ever going to regain market share is to continually produce our product more efficiently with fewer outliers and with less cost. And individual animal management is the only way I know to do that."