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BIXS benefit hinges on how data is used

(Editor’s Note: BIXS, launched in 2011, is a service developed by the Canadian Cattleman’s Association which can link all sectors of the beef production chain from producer to packer in an online information exchange. Producers can input their calf identification numbers and other production information into the BIXS program and then, in simplest terms, as those calves move through the feedlot and packing plant, information can flow both way to all players on how those animals fed out and see how carcasses yielded and graded.)

I personally haven’t had a lot of experience yet with BIXS or the Beef Information Xchange System, however since I do work with millions of performance records on beef cattle every day I am pretty comfortable talking about data and how to use it. BIXS is a software system designed to funnel data to/from like-minded participants in the beef industry from producer to packer.

I believe the first and the most informative thing to look at with any organization you’re involved with is the people who are involved in it. BIXS, with Larry Thomas as national co-ordinator, does pretty well in this regard (Larry, I will get my free beer the next time I see you).

The next point is whether the organization or service provided is going to or has the potential to add value to your operation. This comes down to a cost/benefit analysis. I think in many situations BIXS has the potential to add value, but it will take some personal initiative. In the interest of full disclosure, our own beef operation is a participant in the BIXS program and we see potentially large value benefits.

Also in the interest of full disclosure, although we need data, data itself actually has very little value. It is only the information we can derive from accessing that data that has value. To clarify, here is an example of data: 1234 5678 9101 1213. This data, on its own, is pretty useless. But, if we put that data in the context of representing a credit card number, it becomes useful information.

In BIXS terms, the data that simply shows a calf was vaccinated is not that useful, however the “information” that all your feeder calves have superior immunity is of value. This represents data flowing forward in the system. The really scary part for most of us is what may come back. What and how this data is used is going to be very operation dependent. In other words the “right” way to interpret the data is going to depend on your farm.

Context

One of the most important things about data is to make sure it is taken in context. By this I mean you can’t directly compare calves fed at one feedlot to those fed at another. Differing implant strategies or kill date differences will also change results, and in fact even the length of time in the cooler can affect grading results (longer chill times generally result in higher-quality grades).

If your calves are marketed using pre-sort sales they may be dispersed geographically across numerous feedyards, plants, pens and harvest dates. Producers who feed their own cattle, or market calves directly or sell “pen-load” lots to a single feedlot will have more context to their data, and thus may be able to gain useful information more quickly. Farms that keep pedigree records on their calves will also have enhanced ability to interpret the data.

It is probably a safe guess that calves from your operation with the same harvest and feedlot source could be considered worthy of direct comparison relating back to sires/dams. For more generalist cow herd averaging, it is quite useful to get a hold of the various CanFax reports for the applicable week of slaughter and compare your overall herd averages with the national or provincial numbers. This provides an idea where your cattle may rank and helps to account for some of the seasonality in marketing and carcass quality.

Don’t shoot the goose

I would NOT encourage producers to cull cows from the herd based on a single calf record past the farm gate. It is possible the calf was in the sick pen, or was off feed, or suffered an undue stress that may impact feeding and harvesting results. After a round or two of sub-par data on specific calves, culling cows may be more targeted. General cowherd averages and performance relative to industry averages is probably a safer way to interpret the data at this point.

The golden egg

The most important part of the context argument is ensuring you know what drives your bottom line and having a plan for what will drive your bottom line in the future. This is really where the decision regarding BIXS and how to use the data fits in. There is a good body of research that shows for the traditional cow-calf operation fertility is much more important than either growth or carcass characteristics. However as an operation moves into the chain towards the consumer, growth and then carcass become ultimately more important. For the vast majority of us at this point, sacrificing fertility for carcass merit is a no win, but most of us can make real gains on the feeding/carcass end without making that sacrifice.

Personalinitiative

The success of BIXS relies on getting data from both ends and the middle of the production chain, and that is a challenge for BIXS to tackle. The usefulness of BIXS relies on personal initiative from farmers and ranchers. Making broad -scale, subtle management changes, and as data accumulates over time, working that information into more specific single animal decisions is probably a good approach. Marketing what you have with some documentation is also a potentially valuable use of the program. Marketing means using that “general” cow herd information and trying to fit your cattle into a situation where they will succeed. Marketing means telling people information about your cattle that you gained from the data. This is generally worth extra money in your pocket and this is NOT the responsibility of BIXS — it is your responsibility.

Generally, I believe BIXS is a good idea and I hope it will succeed. I suspect the type of information that benefits those in the chain will find a way to flow through the system. For commercial folks BIXS seems like a reasonable place to post a bet. †

About the author

Contributor

Sean McGrath is a rancher and consultant from Vermilion, Alta. He can be reached at [email protected] or (780) 853- 9673. For additional information visit www.ranchingsystems.com.

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