Robby Beck likes to get to know the cattle in his feedyard. He doesn’t talk to them or give them names, but he does get to know them.

Mr. Beck, who owns and manages Platte Valley Feeders of Kearney, Neb., first wants to know a few things about each animal coming into the feedyard. Place of birth, date of birth, genetic background and management history all play a role in his conception of a value-based system. Through the feeding period he learns even more.

In spring 2004, Mr. Beck decided to update his facility, and with it, his management and marketing strategies. He gutted the operation’s old processing barn and installed new snakes, chutes and sorting alleys. The centerpiece of the processing area, he says, is the Electronic Cattle Management system from Micro Beef Technologies. Mr. Beck’s goal is to manage cattle toward, and market them at, optimal endpoints for efficiency, carcass value and profitability.

At re-implant time, cattle coming through the processing area pass through two chutes. At the first chute, the system automatically identifies each animal by scanning its radio-frequency identification tag. Scales under the chute weigh the animal, and crew members use infra-red imaging technology to measure hip height and frame score. A computer system captures the information. At the next chute, the crew uses an ultrasound scanner to measure the animal’s back-fat thickness and ribeye area.

The system’s software analyzes the information and makes a decision about how much longer the animal should remain in the feedyard, Mr. Beck says. When the chute opens, an automated series of sorting gates directs the animal into one of three holding pens.

If the average or typical marketing date for a pen is 100 days after reimplant, Mr. Beck says, “we will bring the pen back through the system at 45 days from the original out date. The ECM will sort one group into the original target date, select another group for marketing in just 20 or 30 days and a third group that needs to stick around for 60 to 70 days.” The system also allows input of economic variables such as grain price, which influences optimum marketing dates based on cost of gain and estimated market price.

Mr. Beck says he feeds about half company cattle and half customer cattle, with virtually all of them marketed through the Nebraska Corn Fed Beef program. Since last fall, all of the cattle coming through his program are individually identified and source verified with history back to their birth dates.

So far, Platte Valley Feeders has marketed about 2,000 cattle that were sorted through the ECM system. Mr. Beck says these cattle have earned grid premiums averaging about $18 to $20 per head. He believes the system also reduces production costs by marketing cattle at efficient endpoints. Perhaps the biggest advantage, he adds, will come over the long term, as his customers and suppliers apply individual data from the feedyard and the packer to get to know their cattle better and adjust their genetics to add value.