More information on production practices and carcass quality in the hands of cow-calf producers, cattle feeders, and packers is going to change standards in the Canadian beef industry, says a southern Alberta feedlot operator.
Knowing a ranch’s production practices, being able to track calves through the feedlot and ultimately to carcass quality at the packing plant will change how beef is produced in this country. So says John Schooten, who along with family members operates Schooten and Sons Custom Feedyard at Diamond City, Alta., north of Lethbridge.
“As this system develops we will see the industry producing less commercial beef,” says Schooten, who has been feeding cattle for more than 35 years. “As producers we will know what we have to sell. And with the genetic information available, such as EPDs and DNA markers in our seedstock, we will be able to adjust breeding programs as needed.
“We’re competing with the rest of the world in beef and with other meat sectors as well, so we have to become as efficient as possible, and produce not only high-quality, but high-yielding beef.”
One valuable tool in achieving that, he says, is a program recently launched by the Canadian Cattleman’s Association (CCA) — the Beef InfoXchange System, better known as BIXS.
Connect the dots
As BIXS becomes fully operational, it will connect the dots through the whole beef-production chain, says Schooten. It will allow him as a cattle feeder to have a much better idea of the type of cattle he is buying and who is producing those cattle. And being able to track these cattle through to slaughter will let the other end of the production chain send information back to feeders and producers on carcass grade, yield and overall quality.
Schooten says the combination of science, technology and information will create a new era of relationships in the beef industry. Tools such as improved livestock genetics, EPDs and DNA markers can be used to produce desired traits in cattle. At the same time improved grading technology used by packing plants can better identify carcass quality.
He points to the new digital-imaging system, known as the e+v camera, which has been tested in major Canadian beef-processing plants. The unit is designed for use with a moving rail, allowing it to photograph and analyze the rib eye area of the carcass between the 12th and 13th ribs as it passes by. The camera measures grade fat, and rib eye width and depth, and calculates a lean yield percentage, lean yield grade and marbling score. And now with BIXS that information can be relayed back to feeders and producers.
“A cow-calf producer participating in the BIXS program, for example, can enter information on the system about his breeding program, the age of calves, the health status of those calves and vaccination protocol for the cow herd,” says Schooten. “Eventually as those calves come into my feedlot, which is on the BIXS program, I can see how they perform and see what kind of average daily gains they have. When they go to the packer then I can receive information back on yield and carcass quality of those cattle.
“So if I have a nice group of healthy calves that feed well and produce a high-yielding, high-quality carcass then I will want to continue to buy calves from that producer,” he says. “Knowing how well those cattle grade is key information. Those cattle that fit market needs are going to be worth more to the packer and that translates into a premium being paid back to the producer. As more of the industry begins using the BIXS program, I see more of these direct relationships between producers and cattle feeders.”
Schooten says there hasn’t been a widely available tool in the beef industry that could provide a two-way flow of information through the beef production chain until BIXS. And it is a tool that is verified and can be trusted.
“The industry has downsized considerably in recent years,” he says. “And for a long time it was everyone doing their own thing. But now we are starting to see all sectors in the beef-production chain working toward the same goal. We all have to be working to produce the most efficient, high-quality, high-yielding beef that we can. And at the end of the day, we all have to be producing what the consumer wants.
“What does the packer need, what does the retailer need and what does the consumer want? As an industry we have to be focused on that,” says Schooten. “We have to use the genetic tools available to us, and measure those results with carcass grading. And with BIXS we will get information back through the system of what we are producing and what the market wants, and hopefully we can adjust our production to supply what the market is telling us.”
The two-way information flow will benefit all sectors of the industry, he says. The cattle feeder will be able to learn more about the type and quality of cattle he is buying from cow-calf producers, and the packer will provide a report back to cattle feeders and producers on how those cattle performed. BIXS can also provide packers or “the market” with an opportunity to send a message back to feeders and producers about specific markets for cattle with specific carcass quality and traits to see if those cattle can be supplied.
“I don’t see the packers ‘telling’ ranchers what they have to produce, but at the same time there will be some producers who see a market opportunity and will use BIXS to produce cattle for that market, whether it be a specialty meat market, or requirements of the EU market or other foreign market,” says Schooten.
While he feeds a wide range of crossbred cattle in his 15,000-head feedlot, Schooten points to a high-quality beef opportunity featured at the recent Canadian Feedlot Conference he attended in Lethbridge.
Produce for markets
“Certified Angus Beef is a good example of a program that has a demand for a specific type of beef animal,” he says. “Through BIXS, the industry will be able to identify those types of marketing opportunities. Not everyone will produce the exact same cattle that will have the same carcass quality and yield, but it will be able to identify cattle that best fit different market opportunities.
“While we will always have commercial beef production, we will now have tools available to know what we are producing and be able to produce for specific markets as well,” adds Schooten. “As the system develops, those producers registering their cattle on BIXS will have an opportunity for premiums, while those producers who aren’t on the system may be producing commercial beef and will not receive grade and performance data.”
BIXS, which is a web-based program found at www.bixs.cattle.ca, was launched in mid-2011 after two years of development and industry testing.
Cow-calf producers across Canada are being urged to register their cattle on the free and completely confidential BIXS program. Minimum information requirement includes the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA) ear tag number and date of birth of each animal, which can be the starting date of the calving season or the actual birthday of each calf. Producers are also asked to indicate if they have a Verified Beef Production (VBP) operation. And they are also encouraged to provide their Premise ID.
Aside from the basic information, producers also have the option to provide a wide range of other information, says Larry Thomas, BIXS program administrator. That can include breed/cross, colour, castration date, brand/location, dehorn date, details on the vaccination program, parasite control and more.
Information is key
“The more information a producer provides, the more it benefits the marketing of those cattle,” says Thomas. “More information gives the cattle feeder a better sense of the type and quality of cattle he or she is buying, and the more information also aids in a ‘search’ of the BIXS database if a feeder is looking for specific type of cattle or production practice.”
It is a confidential system, so the feeder can’t identify a producer, but a search on the system can alert a producer that a feeder is looking for cattle that match the description of his calves, and then he has the option of whether to contact that feeder.
The process is being designed so cow-calf herds registered on the BIXS program can sell calves into a feedlot that also participates in the BIXS program. Finished cattle are processed at packing plants that also participate in the BIXS program. Carcass data on individual animals from those plants can then be relayed back to feeders and producers.
While the major beef packing plants in Western Canada are on board with BIXS, software that allows for the seamless transfer of information of BIXS data into commonly used feedlot computer systems is just now being finalized. Beef producers can enroll their herds on BIXS now, and feedlots will be joining the program as the software link in the process becomes available in early 2012.
Thomas says the initial carcass data available to feeders and producers will include slaughter date, hot carcass weight, carcass sex, grade of fat depth, carcass yield, carcass marbling and carcass grading.
“As beef herds are registered on BIXS, we begin to develop a pool of cattle in BIXS, but it is a first-walk/then-run process,” he says. “As more cattle join the system we expect to see a wide range of marketing opportunities develop as information flows up and down the whole beef-production chain.” †