Among cattle feeders and packers, the state of South Dakota has a reputation for high-quality cattle. Now, state officials are working to extend that reputation to consumers everywhere with a new branded-beef initiative.

The program includes two levels of participation, says Eric Iversen, a livestock specialist with South Dakota’s Department of Agriculture. First is the “South Dakota Enrolled Cattle Program,” which serves as a prerequisite to the “South Dakota Certified Beef Program.” The beef program, he explains, requires verification that cattle are born, raised and processed in South Dakota. The enrolled program requires the same protocols for individual cattle but makes the animals available to packers in other states. This will add value to source- and process-verified cattle marketed to out-of-state packers while South Dakota ramps up its own slaughter capacity, Mr. Iversen says.

One of the goals of the program is to provide incentives for the state’s packing companies to expand, says South Dakota Deputy Secretary of Agriculture George Williams. Early on, he expects that shortages of qualified cattle and processing capacity will limit growth of the program. He hopes, though, that consumer demand will stimulate growth throughout the system, encouraging local packers to expand capacity and producers to take the steps to certify their cattle. It will take time, he says, but in the long run, the program could provide opportunities for participants at each production stage.

Mr. Williams cites strong interest in the program at several levels, including South Dakota producers, packers and consumers around the country. The Washington Post ran an article about the program in early May, quoting producers and state officials including South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds.

Also quoted in the article was rancher Mike Levi, from Novotny Angus of Winner, S.D. “We see this as an opportunity to perhaps get some reward for documented practices that increase the value of cattle,” he says. The Novotny operation has used electronic identification and followed protocols that match program requirements for the past five years but still sells cattle in a commodity market, he adds. “This could be a chance to really differentiate our products.”

One change Mr. Levi has made is where he feeds the family’s calves. The ranch traditionally sent calves to out-of-state commercial feedyards, but a few years ago, they added a feeding facility and began finishing cattle to qualify for the program.

“We have some cattle on feed now that will qualify for the program when they finish in June,” he says, adding that he hopes the program will launch in time. The operation feeds 650 to 700 head per year, and Mr. Levi says he hopes to market some through the state program initially and more in the future as packing capacity grows.

The Post reporter asked some difficult questions about the differences between South Dakota Certified Beef and other beef, Mr. Levi says. In many ways, the beef itself might not be much different, he says. The brand, and the assurances that come with it, are what participants hope will appeal to consumers. He also believes that South Dakota’s mainly small packing plants can provide a high level of quality control that will help assure consistency in the end product.

Mr. Levi is realistic in his financial expectations. Producers need to recognize that adopting the protocols entails some costs, he says, and participating in a branded program might not immediately yield premium prices for their cattle. He sees the primary value of animal identification, data management and other practices in better production efficiency. If the program eventually generates higher sale prices for cattle, that would be an additional benefit. “Whether the branded program succeeds or not, we will not change our practices,” he says.

There are still huge hurdles to overcome in building a successful branded program, Mr. Levi says, but he is enthused by what he has heard so far. “The state really has put consumers’ interests first.” State administration of the program should assure that protocols remain in place, he says, since the state has no financial stake in moving pounds of beef. Mr. Iversen adds that state officials will audit the voluntary program, and state law enables enforcement of regulations and protection of the brand.