While some major players in the food industry, like McDonald's, are talking up the notion of being able to trace their beef supply to the ranch of origin, that's not the biggest motivation behind a Kansas feedyard's use of a comprehensive traceback system.

For Lane County Feeders near Dighton, Kan., the biggest motivation is repeatability. That means that when they go back to a source for cattle, they have a better idea of how those cattle will perform in the feedyard and on the rail. That takes some risks and guesswork out of the feeding equation for them and their customer.

Derek Martin, supply representative for Lane County Feeders, says that they've been using MircoBeef's Electronic Cattle Management system to track cattle for the past five years. The system uses electronic identification tags and readers to collect and manage information on each individual animal. Mr. Martin points out that there are additional costs and labor associated with installing and maintaining a system like this, but there are paybacks.

"The benefits of sorting to grid targets and giving each animal the opportunity to express its potential makes up the difference," he says.

Without a way to track individual-animal performance and health, reaching that optimal endpoint becomes a guessing game that creates greater risks and potential for losses when selling cattle on a grid-based pricing system.

Voluntary participation
Not every animal in the yard gets an electronic tag. But based on customer preference, 75 percent of the cattle in the feedyard go through the ECM system. These are customers wanting detailed information on animal-health records, feed conversion and carcass information on individual animals.

"We track individual-animal performance and animal health with this system," says Mr. Martin.  "ECM allows us the ability to commingle cattle and allocate feed on an individual basis. In addition, we get accurate carcass information on the individual animals, so customers can be confident that they're being paid for their animal."

As cattle arrive, they are individually weighed and backfat and hip-height measurements are taken. That information is then tied to an electronic ear tag. Cattle then typically stay together and are started on feed. About 80 days later, at reimplant time, a second measurement is taken. Based on the rate of change, an optimum finish date for each animal is projected. "It's at that point that they're put into outcome groups with other cattle with like finish dates," explains Mr. Martin. Once at the packer, the EID is transferred to the plant's trolley ID to assure accurate carcass-data collection.

The ECM information collected is kept in a database. For customers, the feedyard presents the information on an individual-animal closeout where the animals are ranked by adjusted net return. Adjusted net return is used because a customer's set of cattle may be sold in 10 different marketing groups with different market prices. "You have to flatten the market so that you can evaluate the different results," he says.

Choosing a system
"When choosing a traceability system, make sure that when you put an electronic ID in an animal that the next guy can read it," advises Mr. Martin. "We've had customers send cattle with electronic identification tags thinking that we could read them, but we couldn't due to conflicts in the technology."

And the same applies to the other side of the supply chain. Make sure the packers you deal with have the ability to read the tags. This potential conflict deals with full-duplex and half-duplex technology. Find out what your customers are using up and down the supply chain and choose a system that best fits that.