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The High-Tech Cow

By wmadministrator

Kentucky’s beef cattle industry has built itself into a national leader. It’s a leader in production: With more than a million head of beef cattle, Kentucky is the largest producing state east of the Mississippi River.

It’s a leader in sales: The nation’s largest assembly of order buyers and the largest stockyards east of the Mississippi are in the Bluegrass region.
It’s a leader in technology: Producers and sales facilities both incorporate electronic identification and data management tools in all aspects of the businesses.

Yet, Kentucky hasn’t always been at the forefront of the industry.
Scott Bucher, co-owner of S&B Cattle Co., an order-buying business based in Lexington, recalls when he started selling cattle 30 years ago. He would go to a potential customer and say he was from Kentucky, and they would send him right back out the door. Today feedlots are willing to pay a premium for Kentucky cattle.
So what happened that turned the commonwealth’s beef industry around and made it the leader it is today?

Tobacco’s reign ends
The loss of the federal tobacco price-support program after the 2004 crop changed the face of Kentucky’s agriculture economy. Many of Kentucky’s small farmers, formerly reliant on tobacco income, refocused their efforts on the beef cattle in their agribusinesses.

The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture and the Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association – with financial assistance from the state Agricultural Development Fund, created in 2000 with a portion of Kentucky’s share of the master settlement with the major tobacco companies – stepped up to help these farmers make the transition to beef-focused operations. They provided research, production training programs, on-farm assistance and cost-share programs to incorporate new management practices in all levels of the industry.

The Kentucky Beef Network, created to provide on-farm assistance to producers, helped innovative producers begin incorporating technology tools, such as electronic identification tags and data management programs, into their operations. The organization also worked with stockyards and sales facilities to install electronic scales, tag readers and data management technology to improve sales and the efficiency of the market.

“Kentucky’s beef industry is now a leader in the country when it comes to technology,” said John Stevenson, KBN director. “There is not a doubt in my mind that this would not have happened without the commitment of the Agriculture Development Funds.”

State of the art
The impact of technology at the market is readily seen at the new Bluegrass Stockyards South’s state-of-the-art marketing center in Stanford, which opened in the fall.
Pounds are money. Any wasted time and added stress on animals translates into less weight and a lighter bottom line for everyone. Computerized equipment in Stanford minimizes the need for handling cattle, moving them through the facility quickly. As cattle leave the sales ring, the tap of a button opens not only the exit door but a selected gate to a blind, solid-sided alley, guiding the animal more efficiently without distractions.

“The faster, more efficiently we can move animals through the system, the better it is on their health and value of the animal,” said Akers.
It isn’t only the equipment that is computerized at this new facility; the entire operation from sales records to pen numbers is integrated in the system. Bluegrass Stockyards representatives and technicians have the ability to monitor sales and provide assistance to the market from the central office in Lexington.

Quality is a motivator
Driving forces behind the adoption of electronic identification systems for Kentucky beef cattle are special sales programs that bring higher prices, such as the Elite Heifer and Certified Pre-conditioned Health 45 (CPH-45) cattle sales. The electronic ID tags track animals to certify they meet specific health standards and production practices.

The Kentucky Beef Network, Kentucky Department of Agriculture, and the University of Kentucky sponsor CPH-45 sales across the commonwealth, and have worked with facilities to implement cutting-edge technology to improve the efficiency of the market to make CPH-45 sales possible.  Bluegrass Stockyard in Lexington was one of the first to implement the technology to streamline the sale process.

As cattle arrive at Bluegrass Stockyard for a CPH-45 sale, they are sorted according to size, weight and color.  As a producer’s animals go through the sales ring and exit, their ID tags are scanned.  Data is sent straight into the computer system with corresponding pen/lot numbers. Once a pen/lot is sold the cattle are loaded and moved on to a feedlot that tracks the next stage of movement.

The technology uses for CPH-45 sales allows producers to easily comply also with the Process Verified Program, which is a USDA certification. That one read of the animal ID tag, as the cattle leave the sales ring, gives the stockyard all necessary reporting information on the animal. The stockyard shares the pertinent data with the KBN to verify that the animal meets USDA standards for the export market.

Producers who participate in the CPH-45 sales and other special sales also do so on a volunteer basis to capture a higher market price.

‘Making dust or eating it’

David Tucker, a Fayette County beef producer, has been utilizing technology on the farm for several years now.

He adopted electronic identification tags for his cattle during the period USDA was developing language to make it mandatory for all livestock producers.
“You are either making dust or eating it,” explained Tucker. “I wanted to be ahead of the game in the national animal identification process, so I began working with the Kentucky Beef Network on electronic identification (EID).”

The government now has backed away from a mandatory identification requirement, but Tucker has continued to utilize the technology in his operation.
“At first I was scared of implementing the changes. Any time you implement a change it is different,” said Tucker.  “Now I wonder how I did it without using the technology on my farm, the same way many of us wonder how we ever used to make it without cell phones.”

Tucker only has one group of cattle left in his 750-head herd to tag with EID equipment, and his plans are to get those done as soon as possible.

He has used cost-share funds available through his county agriculture development council to purchase equipment such as a scale, laptop and wand that allow him to fully integrate his operations records electronically.

“One read of the electronic tag while I’m working cattle can drop all the information I need on the laptop,” said Tucker. “Then I can use that to look at weight gain, cost of production and other factors to help manage my herd.”

Of course, as with any record-keeping tool, the key to success is ensuring information is entered on the front end. As Tucker stressed, computers can only track the information if it’s put into the management program. That is why KBN works with farmers to ensure they are capturing the data necessary to manage their herds.

“The longer I keep data on my herd, it will not only help in culling but also in selecting my replacement heifers over time,” said Tucker.  “The more information I have on my herd, the better decisions I can make to help my operation make money. It’s as simple as that.”