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Monday, November 26,2007

BEEF talk

by Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University
A burden or opportunity? For the past six years, North Dakota Beef Cattle Improvement Association producers have been involved with age- and source-verification research with North Dakota State University (NDSU) and numerous partners. This partnership led to a successful application to USDA to provide third-party verification for age and source by the North Dakota Beef Cattle Improvement Association. The CalfAID program was named an official USDA-Agricultural Marketing Service Process Verified Program in 2006. Data collected is processed through the cow herd appraisal performance software for nearly 400 North Dakota cow/calf producers, with a typical herd size of 190 cows, as well as beef producers in many other parts of the country. In 2004, 2005 and 2006, 14,432 calves were tagged either by the owner of the calves or NDSU personnel. Combining the three years, 19.5 percent remained on the ranch or farm of birth as replacements. Of the calves offered for sale, 13 percent were traced to backgrounding lots, 29.3 percent were traced to feedlots, and 27.5 percent were traced successfully to the point of harvest. In addition, 10.3 percent never were traced and are considered lost. Despite the enthusiasm and desire for these cow/calf producers to provide the calf and corresponding data as a marketable package, only one in four calves arrived at harvest with the data package. Costs also were documented. Many variables exist in the cow/calf business, such as distance traveled, gathering time, and number of calves worked. Our best estimate per calf is $5 for tags, data management and verification; $7 for working calves, tag placement and documentation; and $8 for data collection and chute fees through the feeding and harvesting segments. The total cost estimate per calf worked on the ranch would be $20 and the total per-calf verified to harvest would be $56, that is if one takes into account that only one in four calves actually made it to the packer with the data intact. The one calf must carry the cost of the other three. In addition, shrink, the lost weight while handling calves, costs the producer. No one debates the need to move, process and work cattle, but it does cost money. Calves are living, changing and growing entities. The dollars are made in growth and meant to be profit, not cost recovery. This weight loss may not seem like much, but it does add up. Our estimates were $10 to $20 from each calf’s income potential. Behind the scenes, several very important components are required for preparing a calf and accompanying data package. Calf-AID provides source and age verification through data management, electronic animal identification and traceback to the extent possible. The need for a calving book that records data points along a calf’s life is essential. Producer data collection in the calving book is verified by CalfAID to separate conforming and nonconforming calves. The efficiency of the process is dependent on technology working in environments that are not technology friendly. New high-frequency technology is appealing to cow/calf producers and others who handle cattle. Recently, high-frequency tags were read with no interference or performance issues at a local livestock auction. A total of 188 calves in 10 different lots sold. The average read time was .338 second per tag, with a 99 percent read rate. This leap forward connects the calf and the data package and opens the door to track comingled and re-sorted lots of calves. Is this a burden or an opportunity? The answer brings a mixed response. The verdict certainly is not in on how the market actually will respond. Premiums are evident, certainly advertised, but the point still remains that only one in four of those calves our producers so painstakingly prepared for the market actually have paved the way. That rate needs to improve throughout the industry.

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Monday, November 12,2007

BEEF talk

by Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University
Forward thinkers always needed in the beef industry Organizations come and go, especially organizations formed for a specific purpose. As that purpose or the need diminishes, so does the organization. Some organizations seem to have a purpose or function that extends through time. These organizations are made up of forward-thinking people who have an ability to keep the never ending complex world organized. One such group is the North Dakota Beef Cattle Improvement Association (NDBCIA). I turned to the group for assistance when I was asked to testify before the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC). The request was for information related to a qualitative and, to the extent possible, quantitative analysis of the economic effects of foreign animal health and sanitary and food safety measures on U.S. beef exports. As I pondered what I might contribute, I reflected on NDBCIA’s success. NDBCIA is one of those visionary organizations that gathered dedicated cattle producers in 1963. To this day, the focus remains. If one was to open the original bylaws, the needs of the organization, as defined by the beef producers at the time, were clear. Before getting to all of them, one is reminded that the crispness of the paper and the original typewriter imprints and overstrikes were done some time ago. The nine original incorporators had a vision of what the beef industry needed. They listed seven objectives: Advance the use of practical and scientifically proven information for beef cattle improvement by encouraging research and education related to the total advancement of beef cattle production; Encourage and coordinate herd improvement programs on the farm or ranch; Encourage and/or provide opportunities for recognition of superior beef type and conformation; Provide guidance and supervision of market and breeding animal evaluation programs in cooperation with breed associations; Assist in processing and evaluating records obtained in a herd improvement program; Promote and advertise superior stock based on accurate records; To become affiliated with the American Beef Cattle Performance Registry Association, thereby joining hands with sister state associations in the standardization of procedure in the measurement of the performance of beef cattle and also the recognition of cattle with outstanding productivity. After 44 years, these objectives still are driving NDBCIA and are the very reason that its founders’ thoughts really form the foundation of any comments one might make on behalf of the beef industry in North Dakota. The heart of NDBCIA rests in doing what is good for North Dakota people involved with the beef cattle production chain. NDBCIA experiences can offer guidance to the industry on issues such as age and source verification and what it means to be a North Dakota beef producer. The association is the home of 374 North Dakota producers who rely on the association’s cow herd appraisal performance system to process their production records. NDBCIA also actively supervises more than 850 production record accounts. Those founders should be recognized for what they started and what continues today as grass-roots producer families on the northern prairies. NDBCIA exemplifies the involvement and hard work needed within the beef industry. The earlier organizational pioneers extended themselves to educate and engage fellow producers and consumers on the aspects of beef cattle production. These efforts stand today as exemplary, along with the lessons taught about stewardship of the air, land and water, and care of their animals. The request to testify before USITC on behalf of those producers is truly an honor, but more importantly, it is the opportunity to represent the seven objectives of NDBCIA. The NDBCIA commitment to a better beef industry has set the tone for current members, which is a continued commitment to a healthy, strong beef industry with a vision for the future.

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Monday, November 5,2007

BEEF talk

by Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University
Buy a scale The beef industry has been producing beef since the first two cows were domesticated. We hope one cow produced a heifer to be kept as a replacement and the other cow produced a bull calf suitable for harvest. In the early days, calf size would have been noticed, if for nothing else, because of the number of people who could be invited over for pot roast. Through the years, weight and frame still remain critical to the success of a commercial beef operation. Through time, calves and cows got bigger in weight, muscle and frame. The current benchmarks for those who use the North Dakota Beef Cattle Improvement Association CHAPS program would suggest that a typical cow would weigh 1,413 pounds and have a 5.5 frame score. These cows would be producing 566 pound steers at 189 days of age. The heifers would weigh 546 pounds and the bulls would weigh 621 pounds. These calves would be gaining 2.53 pounds per day or have a weight per day of age of 3 pounds as they grazed summer pastures. (The difference between average daily gain and weight per day of age is that weight per day of age includes birth weight.) Watching calves going through the local auction barn the other day, the lots did seem to be somewhat on the light side. The published sale report in the local paper reported a total of 126 lots of steer calves. Fifty-one of the 126 lots had an average weight that was less than the typical weight seen in the CHAPS calves prior to weaning. While this is not a direct comparison and is not intended to be, one notable fact was that 11 lots of calves did not break 400 pounds and 35 lots did not break 500 pounds. Actually, the calf weights were not that atypical of a spread in weight seen at many sales through time. However, producers do need to be careful, especially as they talk about calving later and producing lighter calves. Those 400-pound calves at $1.33 would gross $532 dollars per head. During the same sales, there were 23 lots of calves that weighed in at more than 650 pounds. For a typical 650-pound calf bringing in the neighborhood of $1.14, the gross dollars would be $741 per head, a difference of more than $209 per head gross. If one really knew the expenses and the production data, a stronger statement could be made. Historically, light calves bring great dollars per pound, but the heavy calves bring home the big dollars. There is real merit in calving at a time of the year when the weather is more cooperative, the pressure is taken off the winter feed supply, more cows are calving closer to pasture turnout or cows are on pasture. However, producers must remember that the lack of a management plan with light-weight calves simply hands the opportunities to the next owner. Given the current benchmark for calves grazing on grass with their mothers, simple math (using weight per day of age of 3 pounds) will estimate an approximate weight. If the sale date is Oct. 27, a calf born March 1 would be 240 days old and could weigh 720 pounds. A calf born April 1 could weigh 627 pounds, while a calf born on May 1 could weigh 537 pounds. There are many sides to the equation, but the expense side and income side always seem to be battling. Now is a good time to think through just what generates dollars in the beef business. If one is in doubt, buy a scale.

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Monday, October 29,2007

BEEF Talk

by Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University
Load’em up and bring those “doggies” home The fall of the year represents changing times. Colors change, the air becomes crisp, and the growing season comes to a close. It is time to move on. The grain harvest is an early indicator that the time to move from field to bin is here, but the real clincher is the movement of calves. Last week, the Dickinson Research Extension Center started bringing home the calves for weaning and sorting. In the end, cows go one way and calves the other. This activity is motivated by good management principles, which are driven by survival. Soon the water will freeze and any day, the color of white could shut things down. It is time to haul cows and calves. The image of pickups and trailers moving up and down the highways becomes common. A few brief discussions are held to reminisce about the days when all the cattle were herded home, but those mainly are memories. Granted, there are many cattle still herded, but time, labor and the simple availability of efficient transportation make the shift to hauling fairly easy. At 10 miles a day, herding cattle takes time. With many cattle today some 50 to 100 miles from the home ranch, herding cattle just isn’t practical. When hauling, one soon learns to appreciate the good roads in rural America. The North Dakota Agricultural Statistics Service lists statistics indicative of how rural North Dakota is. With a population of 633,837, the most recent census numbers note that about 44 percent of the population still is considered rural. On average, there are 9.2 people per square mile with access to towns by using 106,609 miles of road. There are 30,619 farms in North Dakota with an average size of 1,283 acres. Of the 44,144,595 acres that make up North Dakota, 39,294,879 acres are used for farming. That is what being rural is. The network of rural roads becomes crucial to the daily lifestyle of those who live and make their living in the country, especially as the calves are hauled. Even with that backdrop of rural America, the old days are getting further and further from our thoughts, especially our younger side. The world today is different. Think about all those youth who are at home, in school, at a university or just starting out in the work force. What is their world? The majority of youth are not connected to a rural world. The remnants of being rural are disappearing quickly. Road maintenance and the patience of the county road grader are not witnessed by many. The dilemma of rural versus urban is very real. The scenes are changing, at least from where we sit. The answers often are not apparent and not always welcomed. The scenic view of herding cattle certainly fits with the urban flare, but parking a herd of 300 cows and calves is not as easy today as it was, so we haul. Rural versus town versus city versus metropolitan center creates some interesting lifestyle contrasts. The further one gets from original rural communities, people become more consumers than producers and more energy users than providers. The potential disconnect from the world around us and beyond is real. As a result, if we are not careful, most of those around us like to look, but the feel and smell are best left somewhere else. Perhaps that is why the sights and sounds are better viewed on the big screen with the feel and smell of popcorn outweighing the nitty-gritty impacts of a real cattle drive. In the meantime, load’em up, get those diesels started and bring those little “doggies” home.

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Monday, September 3,2007

BEEF talk

by Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University
Animal identification slowly is becoming a maze that goes nowhere At one time, the process of tracking cattle was simple. Cattle did not move far and any transactions that involved swapping cattle were recorded to memory. In fact, prior to the concept of crossbreeding, cattle were moved only between the same types. This was a concept that was put in place by English animal breeder Robert Bakewell during the 18th century. Of course, there were cattle that were rogues, feral in nature, but these were considered inferior to well-bred cattle. Prominent societies were established to track cattle and record offspring and transfer title as needed. Little did those who established the principle of heterosis and promoted the development of crossbreeding programs realize just how badly they upset the applecart. With the commingling of cattle breeds and the outpouring of commercial crossbred cattle, the need and desire to track the origin and parentage of cattle diminished. The need simply was not evident. Today, one would need to go back to the 1960s to find that environment among cattle producers. It goes without saying that most of today’s producers were not involved with cattle in the 1960s. So, we have a new mind-set by cattle producers. For all practical purposes, producers have grown up during the past 50 years. It was a period of time that witnessed the emergence of crossbred cattle and a simultaneous increase in cattle movement across state and national borders. Perhaps that is one of the fundamental issues regarding animal identification and the utilization of that animal number to help in source and age verification. Not only is the concept foreign to many cattle producers, but also to many involved in the numerous aspects of the cattle-producing business. As a case in point, the current operating mode is not only getting more confusing to producers, but the crisscrossing of demands from within the industry is adding a tremendous burden. The bottom line is that cattle potentially are source- and age-verified if there is some form of functional calving notation in the producer’s records. Those calving notes include some form of identification of an address or physical location. The only process required to complete the job is to place a unique ear tag in the calf at birth or prior to shipping and submit the documentation to an appropriate USDA program that provides verification. Such a simple thought. However, in the industry, it has become a quagmire of tentacles that are overlapping, with a total failure to communicate. It is sad that there are cattle that are source- and age-verified and available to the market but are turned away as the marketing chain places more and more certification requirements to offset perceived failures when cattle products reach their end market. As each market end point develops its own voluntary program, the structure bottlenecks marketing the calves the way calves traditionally have been sold. The additional requirements of certification and re-certification through specific Quality System Assessment (QSA) programs add more layers on top of layers, but, of course, all are voluntary. There is one little surprise. Producers who are responsible for the conception, development, birth and rearing of calves are becoming more and more frustrated when they have a calving book and are record savvy, but are denied entrance to the age- and source-verified programs due to lack of compliance. There is a common question that crosses our desk. What are producers who have their cattle source- and age-verified through a USDA process verified program or QSA supposed to do when the marketing chain places more requirements on them to the point that it causes marketing disconnect? There appears to be considerable structure entering the marketplace, but the structure actually limits the breadth of marketing opportunities for producers. Today, Bakewell is still right when he said “like begets like.” However, he would have a hard time proving it. I think he would have gotten lost in the paperwork.

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Monday, July 16,2007

BEEF talk

by Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University
Back to the fungus Reviewing the cow/calf priority list (“Priorities First: Identifying Management Priorities in the Commercial Cow-calf Business”) that was summarized and authored by Tom Field, Ph.D., Fort Collins, CO, it is very obvious that the highest priorities for cow/calf producers are directly related to the purpose of the cow. That purpose, to annually produce a calf that will convert roughage from ruminant forage to nonruminant feed, is a very important part of the food chain. Whether food for other animals or food for humans, the conversion of forage by ruminants to protein for use in nonruminant diets certainly is important. The production of beef for the human diet is the driving force in the commercial beef industry, which is an industry that is more and more dependent on grass. Some would argue with that statement by noting that the cow/calf business always has been a grass-based industry. However, in the world of cheap, harvested feed, the industry has shifted at times. More manually harvested feeds have been a significant part of the cow/calf enterprise. However, the pasture and range category is No. 2 in the rankings of commercial cattle producers and the top two subcategories involve usage. That usage, as one might guess, involves stocking rate and the timing and duration of grazing. The priority settings do provide a glimpse into how cow/calf producers view the resources around them and open the door to a discussion of missed opportunities. In the area of pasture and range, it is the plants that form the foundation of the ranch. One could even go further and note that soil health is fundamental to the plant community. It is through monitoring and evaluation of the plants that one really learns the guts of a grass operation. The coming and going of various plants throughout a grassland community tells a lot about what is happening, not only on grazing impact, but also what one doesn’t see, which is the living world beneath our feet. This spring definitely was a mushroom spring. What is great about the world of mushrooms is that they simply are giving you a view of a world we cannot routinely see, at least not with the naked eye. Earlier, Lee Manske, Dickinson Research Extension Center range specialist, and I reported on a quick review of a few types of mushrooms evident on our walk in search of fairy rings. The mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of a fungus and the fairy rings are of the genus Chlorophyllum. Along the walk, we found a large number of hygrophorus, amanita, russula, armillarius, mycena, panacolus and cortinarius mushrooms. All these mushrooms must live on organic matter. Many of the fungi break down or decompose dead plants and animals. Furthermore, mycelium is the network of filamentous hyphae that form the typical vegetative structure of fungi and are always present in the soil. One does not need to look across the landscape to see life. All we need to do is look under our feet to find abundant life. The principle of good stewardship of the land literally starts under our feet and is the basis of the principles that establish the accepted grazing systems that producers use. In fact, according to Manske, fungi literally hold our grassland communities together. For example, the activity levels of rhizosphere fungi have the ability to aggregate and stabilize soil particles and thereby improve the quality of the soil in grassland ecosystems. The priority ranking is right because the overall management of the pasture and range has considerable significance for the development of today’s biologically effective grazing management system. However, don’t just look at usage because monitoring the health of grasslands is very complicated, and don’t forget to look at the plants and the soil they are growing from.

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Monday, March 26,2007

BEEF talk

by Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University
Vaccinate and get ahead of the storm We seem to expect and accept some level of illness from the people we associate with and from the living things that are entrusted to our care. During certain times of the year, there seems to be a marked increase in sickness. Now seems to be one of those times. Blame it on the weather. The “cooping” phenomenon because of the weather causes everyone to remain in fairly close contact. In fact, one has the tendency to ask if anyone actually is feeling well. One of our children noted that a friend had chicken pox. Sure enough, we now have chicken pox in the house. Our immune systems will be tested and maybe even bolstered as the chicken pox virus makes its way around the house. At least our next child was vaccinated for chicken pox, but the doctor said we should not be surprised if we have another case of the pox. So we are counting down the days for the emergence of a fresh batch of pox spots. As people, we are very mobile. Fortunately, there are standard protocols concerning vaccinations. Most of us are vaccinated against the numerous diseases that continually make the rounds. Chicken pox is one of the many we were encouraged to be vaccinated against as a child. All of us should have thought about updating our annual flu vaccination. If nothing else, this shot at least gives our bodies a chance to fight off the hordes of things that don’t like us in this world. If we ever question the need for public health and aggressive childhood and adult vaccination programs, a quick trip through any of the older, small town cemeteries should jar us back to our senses. The development of effective vaccines, improvement of antibiotics and other treatment regimens has helped prevent many illnesses. In the bigger picture, improvements within our environments, such as improved water handling facilities, cooking facilities and waste handling systems, are critical to the health of our families and everyone around us. The same is true for all the animals we are entrusted to care for. As calving season approaches, we should reflect on all those things that happen to us so we can appreciate the plight of a calf a little better. The weather has us cooped up and sharing more living space than we want to share, so we get sick. A storm moves in and the cows and calves are squeezed into the barn, so they get sick. One child arrives at school with chicken pox, so our child comes home with chicken pox. One calf has scours and tomorrow the calf next to it has scours. We forgot to get our flu shot this year and are paying the price for it. The old body sure is aching these days. We neglected to vaccinate the calves, so the pen performance seemed to be a little off this year. Some of the calves seemed a little doggier than they should have been on some of those tough days. The toilet’s plugged and running over, but nobody cleaned the bathroom. Well, we just haven’t got around to cleaning the calving barn lately and we ran out of straw for a week. Either way, the local tombstones sing out. We actually have a lot in common with all those calves we are entrusted with. At least for now, the help at the Dickinson Research Extension Center is busy vaccinating the cows for scours and getting better prepared for the calving season. Vaccinate and get ahead of the storm.

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Monday, January 29,2007

BEEF talk

by Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University
The trick in a good beef-breeding plan is to stack the bull pen full of great EPDs. On most winter nights or even days, most cattle producers do not sit around and ponder the activity of blowfish, sometimes called puffer fish. No, this time of year, cattle producers find themselves paging through bull catalogs and dreaming of the perfect bull. The evening pictures bring about a certain amount of contentment to finish the day. The perusal of the estimated progeny differences (EPDs) rejuvenates some basic math skills, quickly sorting the best to the top. But what about blowfish? Blowfish have the unique ability to puff themselves up by rapidly swallowing large quantities of water or air; therefore, along with significant spines, they become a rather difficult target for pending predators. As a young child, I had the privilege of having a dried blowfish on my shelf and was always amazed just how difficult any contact with a blowfish was. Blowfish, like many fish, simply spend their time eating and enjoying life, but are obviously quite prepared for survival. A little natural selection and there seems to be a real opportunity to simply look big and mean and survive. But, underneath, there is simply a little fish that stays alive and continues on for another day. The connecting point for beef producers is that there are blowfish in the beef industry as well. These are bulls that have a knack for looking big and capable as you stroll by their pen at the bull sale, but when you get them home, they are just another bull eating hay. Looking big and mean may be a good strategy for blowfish, but in the world of commercial beef, it is not a very wise strategy. The best defense for avoiding bulls that are simply blowfish is having a plan and using it. The best plan for any bull-buying strategy is based on the use of EPDs. Yes, EPDs are the root of any well-developed selection plan within the commercial beef business. Although crossbreeding certainly has the ability to offset problem areas as well, all beef-breeding programs must start with a selection plan to arrange the best genetics (DNA) available in a producer’s herd. So, the basics are simple. Every bull, at least those bulls recorded with a breed association, should have a reasonable list of EPD values. EPD values are the expected progeny differences when two bulls are randomly mated to cows of the same breed. These expected progeny differences are simply the subtracted values of one bull’s EPD versus another bull’s EPD. For example, if a bull (named Nice) has a weaning weight EPD of 40 pounds and another bull (named Nicer) has a weaning weight EPD of 60 pounds, then the bull named Nicer should, on the average, sire calves that have the genetic potential to weigh 20 pounds heavier at weaning. The calculation is 60 pounds (Nicer) minus 40 pounds (Nice) equals 20 pounds. In other words, a 20-pound genetic advantage for the Nicer bull. This is the same concept for all EPD values. A quick review of the numbers will allow any producer who is looking for a new bull to soon figure out who is the real bull, in terms of growth or size, versus who is the blowfish and simply puffed full of air and looking good for the day. Buying the right bull is an offensive move for survival. And don’t forget that even though some bulls are simply blowfish, a few bull producers are, too. Beware—don’t give in to the big, puffed-up bull. Hold your ground and buy the bull you need based on EPDs.

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Monday, December 4,2006

BEEF talk

by Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University
  The future of beef—global competitiveness In the world of food production, beef is one piece of a very big picture. Today’s beef production plans need to include the rest of the world, which is very complex and sometimes volatile. Trade across borders means survival. Flynn Adcock and Associates opined in “Consumer Issues and Demand,” published by the American Agricultural Economics Association’s online Choices magazine (www.choicesmagazine.org, Volume 21, No. 3, 2006), that three global forces impacting us are “animal disease outbreaks and discoveries, income growth in developing economies and trade liberalizations.” The faces and expressions of these forces are hard to decipher and have many forms. Sometimes the energy to collectively face the challenges evades us, so we retreat. It is easy to sit and ponder the future of one’s ranch or farm as the outreaches of the world drift away. That is how it was for decades as American producers were comforted with the concept that they were feeding the world. Producers stood knowing they were helping people around the world, but never would see all of it. Those thoughts went beyond market value, the need to make a profit or the need for material things. Growing up, one of the biggest days on the farm was filling the potato bin. The potato digger, originally pulled by horses and then adapted to a small International Farmall tractor, was a marvelous device. All one had to do was sit on the old seat and lift the front end as the driver turned from one row to the next. The potatoes would roll up the chain, shedding the soil as they moved under your feet and fell on top of the ground. White potatoes were for baking, red for lefsa and other uses. By the end of the day, the potato bin was full. The chickens already were in the freezer and the laying hens were moved to a winterized shed. Nobody said anything to the pigs because deer hunting season wasn’t over. The beef harvest was a bigger job, but a locker plant could be found to help process, cut and wrap the boxes of meat. The only real indication that the inventory had changed was the great aroma of fresh blood sausage cooking in the kitchen oven. Basement shelves were filled with garden produce just waiting to fill our plates as the year went on. How could one complain? The family had food for another year and the world didn’t do so badly, either. Yesterday is no longer here. Lefsa can be made from potatoes in a box. There’s hardly a home around that actually has a year’s worth of food stored in the cellar or a full potato bin (a what?). The typical beef producer today frequents the local supermarket as often as those living in town. As beef producers, we rely on the rest of the world to supply us with our other needs, including almost all of what we eat. Sitting and pondering today certainly brings up different visions. There still is comfort in supplying food to others, but there is less comfort knowing that our own cellars are no longer filled. We simply depend, like many in the world, on the ability to purchase what we need to survive. For the beef industry, the point is that the world changed. We fed the world, we educated the world, and so the world and the people changed. They don’t really need us. Harvesting potatoes was simple and pondering our future was fun. However, the pondering is gone and in its place is the need to better understand global impacts and realize that we are just one of many in pursuit of the good life.

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Monday, October 30,2006

Beef talk

by Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University
Do not cut out tags The other day I was visiting with a producer who wanted carcass information on the calves he sold. His frustration was directed at the failure of the system. None of the performance data from his calves was coming back to him. He tagged his calves with electronic identification (EID) tags and followed all the appropriate steps, but nothing happened. The principal reason was the electronic ID tags in his calves had been cut out when the calves arrived at the feed yard. Sometimes the message needs to be very blunt: “Do not cut out electronic identification tags, commonly known as EIDs.” The EIDs may have different appearances, depending on the tag company design, but essentially they consist of a button that is attached to the ear by means of a stud. These tags are passive electronic devices that have little to no information on them. The same holds true for all IDs that an animal may have. The visual tag IDs or brands are very important in determining who an animal is. The verification of the EID, along with visual IDs, is important to maintaining the accuracy of the database. In the previous two years, 7,282 calves have been tagged with EID tags in preparation for tracing the calves through the backgrounder, feedlot and harvest process. Our trace-back efforts have revealed 1,440 of the animals still are grazing pastures at home as replacement females. Of the 5,842 that left the home ranch in 2004 and 2005, 3,584 calves have been lost in the system (to date) and 61.3 percent of the calves were not tracked through harvest. The most obvious reason is the tags were cut out. Once the tags are removed, all information flow stops immediately. A very distant second reason is the inability to timely negotiate with individual feed yards to make arrangements at the harvest facility to have the tags read so the appropriate carcass data can be collected. The bottom line is worth repeating: “Do not cut out ear tags from cattle, and that goes for all cattle!” Another little quirk came up in the discussion that shows the relative degree that the electronic ID is misunderstood. There is a thought by some that the EID device can record data and actually is monitoring the calf and its environment. Therefore, the tags should be cut out and destroyed. The passive EID tag (used in the CalfAID program) is not capable of acting under its own power to record data. The tag must be read by utilizing appropriate equipment that only reads a factory-installed number that is permanently embedded in the tag. No other information is on the tag. There are active tags that can store data. However, that tag is not promoted to any large extent in the industry. Even then, appropriate programs must be retained and utilized through specific equipment. The common low-frequency tags currently used do not record data. The tags that do record data require special equipment that is very obvious within the work facilities. Hopefully, with time, more data will start coming back to help producers with management decisions to enhance the management of their beef cattle operations. The center has a goal of distributing 20,000 EIDs for the express purpose of helping producers better understand the complexities of tagging cattle. Each year does get a little better, but one step at a time. Remember: Do not cut out those tags.

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