In an operation as large as Five Rivers Ranch Cattle Feeding, it is hard to imagine monitoring and managing each animal as an individual. But that is where they are headed. Five Rivers is the world’s largest cattle feeder, with a one-time capacity of over 800,000 head in 10 feedyards, finishing between 1.5 million and 1.7 million head of company and customer cattle per year.

Russ  Danner, the company’s vice president for information technology, says that for an operation as big as Five Rivers efficiency is critical, and the true potential of individual electronic identification is just over the horizon. Danner says that Five Rivers currently uses individual electronic identification only on cattle imported from Canada, as a means of verifying their movements in accordance with USDA regulations.

For domestic cattle, he says, the company keeps group/lot records, maintaining a paper trail for source, age and process verification, such as for natural-beef programs.

Using current EID technology for these applications in the feedyard, Danner says, would not add any additional value, and the logistics for installing and operating an EID system using low-frequency “134” tags in feedyards that ship 4,000 cattle or more each week are daunting. Using low-frequency tags and readers would require modifying shipping, receiving and processing facilities to move cattle through narrow passageways within range of the readers  —  typically just 2 to 3 feet. Corresponding records on the cattle can add value to the packer, he says, but the company currently can achieve the same value with group/lot paper records.

The real value to the feedyard, he says, will come when it can use an active EID system to monitor cattle from a distance, in real time, and apply the information to management and marketing decisions.

Danner says Five Rivers currently is working with Southfork Solutions Inc., a technology company located in Idaho, toward the development of an ID and data-management system called Electronic Livestock Verification and Information System, or ELVIS, that utilizes active, high-frequency EID tags. Southfork is a new company comprised of individuals with expertise in technology, feedyard management and animal research. Dave Hempstead, CEO of TetriDyn Solutions, a technology solutions company located in Pocatello, Idaho, serves as CEO of Southfork Solutions. The other executive members of Southfork include Antoinette Knapp, VP of finance and IT; Gary Johnson, VP of livestock operations, who also is co-owner of Johnson Feedlot, a 20,000-head family-run operation located in Idaho Falls; and Scott MacGregor, DVM, VP of research and owner of Livestock Consulting Services. Danner completes the board of directors for Southfork.

MacGregor says that animal identification, in conjunction with efficient, practical data collection and analysis, can benefit every stage of beef production. And with exports offering real opportunity for growth in the U.S. beef industry, he stresses that traceability is critical for market access and competitiveness. In the absence of a mandatory national system, he says it is up to producers to participate in programs that accommodate age, source and process verification of cattle from the ranch through the packing plant.

While visual tags and low-frequency EID tags have useful applications, MacGregor says, a feedyard system using active, high-frequency EID technology can reduce labor and animal handling, provide more data and facilitate quicker decisions.

The system Five Rivers is developing will use the long-range capabilities of high-frequency EID to monitor cattle wherever they are in the feedyard  —  their movement in the pens, time and frequency of feeding and watering. The software, MacGregor says, “will do the heavy lifting,” by analyzing each animal’s behavior throughout the day, including time spent at the feed bunk or water tank.

In the company’s research facilities, Five Rivers has run numerous trials utilizing the GrowSafe feedyard system for monitoring cattle. This system uses ID readers and a scale mounted at watering tanks. Each time an animal comes to the tank to drink, it places its front feet on the scale and its head within range of the low-frequency EID reader. The system identifies the animal, captures a partial weight and records how long it spends at the water. The partial weight correlates well with total weight, allowing the software to monitor daily gain for every animal in the pen and project endpoints based on performance. It also can identify cattle that might be getting sick, as their weight gain or visits to the water tanks drop off.

The system in development for commercial application in the feedyards, Danner says, will not measure animal weights. But by using the high-frequency EID system, it monitors cattle wherever they are in the pen, rather than at a particular location such as the water tank. 

Danner sees this system as a tool, not just for animal identification but for comprehensive feedyard operation. The concept is a hands-free, seamless system for monitoring and analyzing cattle behavior and making decisions for you. “It will allow us to do more for less,” he says, citing high operating expenses and labor shortages that drive a need for more efficiency. Real-time monitoring of cattle, Danner says, will allow more accurate feed delivery, with the computer making feed calls based on feeding behavior. The system will help managers determine when to deliver feed, how much and, potentially, when to step up rations in each pen. With the high-frequency tags, he says, “we gain the ability to manage our inventory on a daily basis.”

MacGregor notes that changes in an animal’s behavior, such as the time it spends at the feed bunk, can indicate early signs of sickness. Feed consumption can drop off well before an animal shows visible signs of sickness that a pen rider could detect. By identifying sickness early, MacGregor says, the system could allow crews to successfully treat cattle in their home pens, avoiding the stress and disease exposure associated with removing them to a hospital pen.

MacGregor adds that collecting data from a distance also addresses important areas of animal welfare when compared with working cattle in the confined systems that are required to collect low-frequency information. Labor and time savings should provide additional advantages.

Danner also plans to use the system to sort finished cattle far more timely marketing. As cattle approach slaughter weights, the system can correlate a drop off in feeding with declining efficiency, thereby identifying cattle that should ship out ahead of the rest of the pen. “With $7 corn,” Danner says, “if we can take two weeks of feeding time off 10 percent of the lot, we can see significant savings.”