Computer Technology Transforms Cattle, Dairy Industries

By Kate Murphy N. Y. Times News Service | THE JOURNAL RECORD, July 29, 1997 | Go to article overview

Computer Technology Transforms Cattle, Dairy Industries


Kate Murphy N. Y. Times News Service, THE JOURNAL RECORD


Working cattle at the Decatur County Feedyard in Oberlin, Kan., has always been a complex craft. But there was a simplicity to some jobs, like inoculations. "We used to hold them in the shoot, give them their vaccination, and then kick them out," explained the head cowboy, James Fortin.

Today, things are different. Using a large variety of electronic equipment, Fortin now takes detailed records identifying each animal and collecting data about its size and health, to determine the amount of food and medicine it needs. "They call me the ultrasound man, now," Fortin said.

Technology is transforming the cattle and dairy industries. Competitive pressures, high feed costs, and the demand for prime, specialty beef have forced more farmers and ranchers to drive their herds into the electronic frontier. Cowboy gear may now include electronic scanners along with the more predictable ropes, chaps and pocket knives. The scanners collect identifying data from the electronic ear tags that, when downloaded into laptop computers, automatically calls up each cow's family and medical history. A slightly different sort of scanner is also mounted on the doors of dairy barns to read which cows come in to be milked. "The technology allows tracking," from calf to carcass, "which is the first step toward herd improvement," said David Warren, president of Allflex USA Inc., a privately held Dallas manufacturer of electronic animal identification devices. None of the experts in cattlemen's professional organizations, federal or state agencies, or universities can say for sure how many of the nation's 87.8 million beef cattle and 9.3 million dairy cows are raised with electronic aids. But technology is clearly making inroads in a business whose reliance on physical skill and intuition have made it a metaphor for the American experience. Still, whatever the folklore surrounding them, cattle are a business proposition. Tracking them through their lives to determine how to produce the food Americans want is crucial to improving profit margins. Historical information can explain why one animal in a herd fetched top dollar for its prime cuts while another ended up as ground chuck -- or why one cow yields butterfat-rich milk while another does not. The results can mean as much as a $300 difference in the value of an animal. On average -- and the averages reflect significant annual fluctuations in price -- a single head of cattle, which usually weighs between 1,000 and 1,300 pounds, now sells for 64 cents a pound, according to Cattle Fax Inc., a private research company based in Englewood, Colo. "There are so many things, from genetics to type of feed, that can make a difference," said Warren Weibert, owner and general manager of the Decatur County Feedyard, one of the most technologically sophisticated agricultural operations in the country. Weibert's yard fattens 24,000 cattle for slaughter every six months. For the last three years, he has electronically tagged 15,000 to identify what factors contribute to production of the uniform, high-quality product that meat processors seek. Raising cattle to suit the market's taste has become more crucial since Americans have become increasingly health conscious, looking askance at everything from whole milk to hamburger. But even though overall meat consumption has declined in the last decade, demand for prime grade cuts has risen. "Cattle producers' goal nowadays is to come up with those higher grades that consumers have demonstrated they will pay higher prices for," said Chuck Lambert, chief economist with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association in Washington, D.C. The cattle industry generated $50 billion in retail sales last year. Decatur is one of a handful of feedlots in the United States that has installed $150,000 to $250,000 systems like Amarillo-based Micro Chemical Inc.'s Accu-Trac to electronically monitor their cattle. In fact, according to Rod Fee, the livestock editor of Successful Farming, buying such a system makes sense only if an operation's herd exceeds 15,000 head. …

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