Like a house without a foundation, or a table setting with no food, animal identification does little without a management system designed to collect, analyze and use  information.

In discussions of animal identification and verification systems, producers sometimes complain that after time and money invested to tag their calves, they saw no benefit — no premiums at sale time, no data back from the feedyard or the packer.

 These concerns can be legitimate, and even the best system isn’t foolproof. But by building a system around specific goals, some producers find that individual ID, specifically electronic or radio-frequency ID, offers significant benefits.

One of these is Arizona ranch manager Helen Fraze, whose family has used an RFID system since 2001. Fraze says animal ID is such a powerful and valuable management tool that she doesn’t understand why more producers do not put it to use. Part of the challenge, she admits, might be they don’t have the foundation in place to capture value from identification.

Fraze says her father, Jim Tout, kept extensive records on the herd for many years, so the RFID system was a natural addition to help streamline and improve an existing process.

Plan first

Dale Blasi, Kansas State University Extension beef specialist, reminds producers to start with the end in mind as they set up an ID system. Identify specifically what it is you want to learn and achieve, and what information your customers need, then work backward to design a process. “If someone is tuned in to good recordkeeping, that is a good start toward using information from individual ID,” he says.

After identifying information needs, do your homework on software or other systems for maintaining and analyzing data, Blasi says. RFID provides advantages in automated generation of records, but the system does not need to be expensive or complex. There are some excellent software packages available that are designed for maintaining and managing individual animal records, but depending on individual needs and comfort level with technology, producers can develop their own spreadsheets. The key here, Blasi says, is making a commitment to collect and use the information.

Focus on management

Some of the simplest records, Fraze says, can pay big dividends. Her family uses its ID system, for example, to identify and cull cows that do not have a calf every year. A cow that’s open one year might be an anomaly, but if it becomes a trend, she doesn’t want that cow in the herd. Considering the carrying costs for a cow that doesn’t produce a calf, Fraze asks, “If you remove one unproductive cow, how many ear tags will that pay for?”

Blasi says drought management is an excellent example of how individual ID can benefit producers by helping them make objective culling decisions, and Fraze agrees. Much of her region has experienced extended drought, and producers have been forced to cull cows. With good records linking several years of calves with each cow, she is better able to make objective decisions on which to keep and which to cull.

In 2001, Fraze began using the RFID system by tagging all calves and cows less than 5 years old. The Fraze family operates three Arizona ranches, including some rugged country accessible only on horseback. Still, she says, the crews have no problem tagging calves and initiating records at birth. Through the calving season, her three employees carry tags and equipment, along with tally books containing all their tag numbers, on their horses or ATVs.

All the cows have three-digit visual tags as well as the 15-digit EID tags. As each calf is born, crew members install the RFID tag and record its number along with its dam’s number. They also grade the calf from one to 10 based on size and condition, and record its sex and date of birth. All the information goes into an Excel spreadsheet Fraze uses to manage the data.

Fraze also makes good use of an electronic scale — a critical tool in capitalizing on an ID system. At weaning, the crews weigh each calf, scan its tag and correlate its weight and other characteristics back to the cow.

Matching weaning records with birth records allows objective assessments, Fraze says. “It’s all there in black and white.” A small, thin calf, for example, might grade “four” at birth, but its weight at weaning will show whether it is a poor-doer. Some lightweight calves make it up and wean at the same weights as those that graded better at birth. If not, she begins looking at the cow as a potential candidate for culling.

When weaning records turn up a cow that didn’t wean a calf, Fraze says, she will attempt to find the cause. Again, any trend that indicates poor maternal abilities is cause for culling.

“With first-calf heifers, if I have to pull a calf we make note of it in the records.” 

Fraze says she also keeps records on cow disposition. She won’t keep a cow with a poor attitude, and won’t retain that cow’s heifer calves for breeding.

Fraze also notes there is an assumption that the calves born earliest in the season will be heaviest at weaning, but records show it is not always true. Some born in the middle of the calving season turn out best at weaning. But when records show a cow is having its calf later each year, she could be subject to culling.

Last year, Fraze says the family sold all its calves to a feedyard that provided group performance data and group carcass data from the packing plant. She hopes to begin collecting individual carcass data to correlate back to individual cows.

Dave Schafer is an assistant research scientist and resident director of the V Bar V Ranch, part of the University of Arizona’s Agricultural Experiment Station. The ranch manages a herd of 530 cows on 80,000 acres of mostly public land.

“We’ve used individual identification for some time, and switched to EID within the last few years, primarily to help with management decisions and to demonstrate the benefits to producers,” Schafer says. EID speeds things up in terms of collecting information, he adds, saying it is more automated and reduces the chance of errors in recording ID numbers.

To successfully adopt EID, Schaeffer says producers need to invest in the equipment, but above that, they need to recognize their need for production information. Once they have identified information needs, they need to make a commitment to collect the data and to actually use it in making decisions.

“We use ID for collecting performance information, such as tracking the performance of every cow on the ranch. We also track calves on the ranch and through the feedyard in a retained-ownership program. We use the information for research, but also to aid in selection and other management decisions.”

Schafer says that for producers getting started with individual animal ID, short-term goals could include eliminating less-productive cows. Longer-term applications could focus on adjusting genetic selection to meet specific performance and carcass-quality goals.

Verification benefits marketing

Fraze says her family has sold its calves at weaning the past few years, but previously retained ownership through feeding for 18 years and collected information to apply back to selection and management decisions at the ranch.

She has not seen much benefit at marketing for age and source verification. But while she hopes more buyers begin to recognize the value of documentation, she continues to see the primary benefits in using the information gained through her ID program for management decisions.

Schafer also says his focus remains on management, but he has seen premiums based on verifications linked to individual ID. “More buyers want specific information on cattle,” he says. Recently, the operation sold a group of 15 cull cows, Schafer recalls. “The buyer asked if we could provide age and source verification. We could, and about 10 minutes of paperwork resulted in an extra $700 on the sale.”

The operation is seeing premiums of $20 to $25 per head for cattle coming out of the feedyard with age, source and process verification, but Schaeffer stresses that higher sale prices are not the primary goal of the ID program. “We’re using animal ID to track cattle through the system and collect performance information to apply to management decisions. Premiums are just a bonus — getting paid for something you’re already doing.”