For many beef producers, an individual animal-identification system serves as a link to other production stages. A cow-calf producer who retains ownership through the feedyard, for example, or participates in a value-based marketing alliance, can use his ID system to obtain information on the later performance of his calves. Kniebel Farms & Cattle Company of White City, Kan., takes the concept even further.

This family operation includes Red Angus seedstock, commercial cow-calf and feedlot production. Since its inception in 1878, Kniebel Farms has marketed finished cattle exclusively, rather than calves. The Kniebels are charter members of U.S. Premium Beef and market their cattle through USPB’s value-based grids.

In its commercial herd, the family uses a three-breed rotation of Red Angus, Angus and Hereford in its crossbreeding program, with a goal of producing, the family says, “thick, moderate, easy-keeping, pound-producing cattle that also happen to be higher grading, Choice cattle.” In July of this year, the Kniebels won the Beef Improvement Federation’s Commercial Producer of the Year award.

Kevin Kniebel says they keep individual records on cattle through the entire production chain, from birth dates and weights through weaning weights, all treatment and vaccination records, feedlot performance and full individual carcass data from the packing plant. They tie all the records back to breeding decisions, both in the registered herd and for commercial cattle.

Mary Ann Kniebel, who also works as a beef-cattle nutritionist, keeps calving and weaning records on file to meet traceback requirements for value-added marketing programs and to support production and business decisions. By monitoring and recording carcass performance and relating it back to the cow herd, she can make objective culling decisions.

In the feedlot, the Kniebels use ultrasound measurements on all cattle, typically about 60 days prior to slaughter. Based on ultrasound measurements of backfat, marbling and ribeye area, along with body weights at that stage, they tag cattle with color-coded ear tags that segment them into marketing groups, with market dates reflecting optimum endpoints for each group. The Kniebels also use ultrasound measurements of carcass traits such as marbling, ribeye area and backfat as a selection tool for yearling bulls and heifers.

The family finishes calves for its seedstock customers, providing individual performance data and helping them obtain carcass data from U.S. Premium Beef. Individual identification allows the Kniebels to help their customers relate the performance and carcass data back to their genetic selection, and allows customers to capitalize on the age- and source-verification premiums available for those who maintain birth records.

“We have used electronic ID tags in the past for tracking individual performance and carcass traits,” Kevin says. The tags worked fine, he adds, although there was some tag loss in a particular pen where the cattle tended to scratch against a panel. Kevin says the family tattoos individual identification numbers on all their cattle as a backup. If an animal loses its ear tag, particularly an animal in the breeding herd, the tattoo allows positive identification and prevents the loss of valuable data. Over the past few years, the Kniebels switched back to only visual tags to comply with age- and source-verification programs that demanded a visual tag for delivery. USPB lists average premiums for age- and source-verified cattle at $35 per head.

They also supply some cattle for USPB’s Angus-based “Naturewell” branded program, which requires breed verification, no implants and no antibiotic treatments within 120 days of slaughter, and offers a grid premium of $2.75 per hundredweight of carcass.

The family provides performance and carcass data on its Web site to illustrate progress resulting from selecting and managing cattle in a grid-pricing system. Carcass data on over 4,500 of the Kniebels’ cattle processed through U.S. Premium Beef between 1997 and 2007 shows 80 percent grading Choice or better and over 9 percent Prime. The cattle gained 3.15 pounds per day from weaning to finish and earned more than $225,000 above the cash market returned to the ranch, due to recordkeeping and management over the last 10 years.