Justin Sexten: Technology’s Role in Traceability

Steer with RFID tag
Steer with RFID tag

The opinions expressed in the following column are those of Justin Sexten, Performance Livestock Analytics.

An unexpected outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic is the growing consumer interest around traceability. The supply chain challenges faced by the livestock industry have been front and center in the news and on social media. The stress this placed on prices and availability of meat and milk at the consumer level led to panic buying and ultimately consumers increasingly asking where their food comes from.

An interesting product of this question is the rapid growth and interest in local processing and freezer beef. Many local processors are booked well into autumn already. What remains unclear is whether this expanded interest is a product of a consumer wanting a “captive meat supply” or truly wanting to know the source or more likely some combination of the two.

Another COVID-19 related primer for consumer interest in technology and traceability may stem from proposed solutions for contact tracing. For those new to the term, contact tracing is where health officials track down disease exposure based on who the affected have been in contact with. Imagine writing down the “chain” of personal contacts you had pre-quarantine and you can see how social distancing makes this job a bit easier and is cited as the key to reducing disease spread.

Technology is under development to further automate and improve the accuracy of this task. You may have seen news reports showing cell phone movement records as a way to demonstrate quarantine success. Anonymous personal movements do not provide much ability to truly contact trace but provide indicators of where movements are occurring.

As I write this article, Apple and Google announced the release of device technology that software developers can use to track and automate notifications of COVID-19 exposure. Using Bluetooth technology within the device the proximity to other app users can be logged and later used to notify individuals of a positive test by someone they were in proximity to. As a part of the data privacy efforts these systems are voluntary and work only for users on a common platform.

What does this human coronavirus technology update have to do with traceability in the beef supply chain? Historically most would suggest tracking animal movement was too challenging across the beef industry and the data privacy associated with such data may represent an equal if not greater challenge. The advancements in technology and handling of data privacy we are currently witnessing provide a useful structure to look at options for a traceable beef product.

Cattle are not walking the pastures with Bluetooth enabled devices that can later be used to notify ranchers of an exposure to a herd mate diagnosed with pinkeye. However the development of  systems using RFID technology is well underway in the beef industry.

Disease traceability capacity continues to grow with the expansion of the CattleTrace initiative. Similar to the contact tracing technology, this system offers traceability only to those who participate. Partial participation allows for a real-time systems test but true disease tracking will require industry wide participation and for many the value proposition for industry level disease monitoring is challenging with partial participation.

There are several objections to participation in current industry wide traceability efforts: data privacy concerns, inability to monetize the data and difficulty implementing the programs. As the summer video auctions begin you can watch different segments of the industry overcome many of these objections at an operational level.

There will be numerous strings of cattle sold at a premium with traceability built in. For some it will be age and source verification, others capture value reducing the technology used in cattle management by marketing non-hormone treated or natural cattle. Others are providing cattle care and management verifications. Regardless of the practice, each carries some level of practice verification tied to a document and an electronic tag linking the cattle to the operation.

For those looking for opportunities and options in their cattle marketing program perhaps now is the time to re-evaluate the operational barriers to participating in a traceable food system. Many will ask, does consumer interest equal more dollars spent on beef with adjectives? A fair question, and one frankly that is difficult to value at the ranch level. A more relevant question asks what operational efficiencies can technology provide that qualifies cattle for traceable programs.

For many simplifying data capture in a way they can make actionable decisions while validating practices for the next owner. Here is an example of evaluating technology adoption against the opportunity to enhance marketing or reduce costs. Systems accomplishing both are more likely to provide a faster ROI.

We have discussed several technology opportunities from predicting illness, monitoring performance, and assessing grazing patterns. Let’s not overlook the simplest adoption opportunity, an electronic tag coupled with production records. Now is the time to start planning to leverage this technology at the ranch to enhance management decisions while staying focused on a technology enabled marketing program.


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