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Coffee shop talk: What cowboys are saying about cattle ID, traceability

Cattle traceability, once a topic in the online world, is now becoming part of the coffee shop chatter.

Opinion; By Pepper Stewart

If documenting your cattle got you more money, why would you not do it?

On the other hand, there is plenty of skepticism about the unknown.

In recent weeks I've been visiting with cattle growers to see what topics are floating around the coffee shop. Cattle traceability is one of the topics that is getting quite a bit of chatter lately.

The reviews are mixed. They are anywhere from “keep the government off my farm,” concern about size of their herd, to even the age of the cattleman. The one thing we all agreed upon, however, was that getting the top dollar is everyone's goal. 

Over the past few years, cattle associations have been trying to come up with a uniform way to trace cattle from birth to the table. Herd management is at the top of the list. While talking with cattle growers, each had their own way to keep records on their cattle. The tried and true method—that most people discussed as the most effective—was that of the good ol' notebook, pencil and paper.

The use of a computer programs and online filing was mentioned a few times for record keeping. A couple of the cattlemen said they don't keep any records or have a vaccination program. Just like a box of apples, it only takes one cow to not be vaccinated and undocumented to ruin the market for the rest of us.

Cases such as this are why it is important to know where the cattle come from as they travel from birth to the plate. Today we live in a high-tech world where consumers have gotten more interested in where the products they buy come from and whether or not they’re safe.

I asked ranchers some questions: Do your cattle have ID ear tags? How much do you pay for the ID ear tags you buy for your cattle? Cattle ear tags average $1 to $3 each, and range from only numbers to a RFID numbered ear tag. What information does your current ear tag offer when you sell that animal?

Other than a blank stare, a couple of cattleman said that you can scan the RFID tag. What if you could scan you ear tag with a RFID reader and your smart phone? What if you could scan an ear tag and pull up all the history of that animal?

Then I was asked, "You're saying that there is an ear tag you can scan with your phone, and pull up that calves’ story?” Yep! I took out my phone, pulled up the app, and showed them the history on my cattle.

I then explained that the new buyer gets all this information after purchase. Then more questions. “How much does the app cost? That's a lot of information with a picture of the calf.” “I bet that program is expensive?”

The smartphone app is free, the software is free, but there is always a catch. The catch is that you have to buy the RFID smart phone scannable ear tags. Those tags are only $2 each, and that's worth it to have access to free herd management software.

There has been another round of discussions on tracking cattle and keeping track of the herd for disease control. These discussions have been making the rounds on the internet and most of your farm and ranch publications, including this one. I have had a couple "off the record" conversations with those behind the new push, and it seems that the program I currently use is just fine.

Here is an example of how it should work. Rancher Joe sells Rancher Sally 10 calves. Now Rancher Sally signs up for the free software. Once she inputs the tag numbers, boom, there is all the history that Rancher Joe had on the calves. Birth place/date, weight, vaccination records, pictures, etc. is all available, and now under Rancher Sally's account.

As this continues and the calves/cattle change hands once they reach the packer, they too can scan the tag and see all the history on the animal. That is the traceability that everyone is looking for.

The program and tags we use are from AGEX using the AGEX HERD Management software. We use it for herd records but it doubles for traceability, too.

Everyone does things their own way, but here is how we use the program: When working cattle, we scan the tags as we put them in the animal’s ears, all while still taking notes on paper. At the end of the day, we sit down (in the comfort of our house) and input the information that correlates with the tag numbers. We still keep the paper notebook for a backup.

Stewart is a beef producer, rodeo announcer and online media personality from Dallas, Texas. Contact him at www.pepperstewart.com.

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