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Beef/Cattle Extension Program

"The person with the most information wins": Montana Beef Network seeks to help producers add value to Montana cattle

By Carol Flaherty, MSU News Services
"I'd love to have more steers from the Montana Beef Network...I wish more people would get involved with it."

For several hundred Montana beef producers, gone are the days when they bred cows, raised calves, sold 'em, cashed the check and simply started over again.

In the information age, where both consumers and auction bidders want quality assurance, the information provided by the Montana Beef Network is a way producers can get the information they need to predictably qualify for those premiums.

"We all have to do more and more, to know more about what kind of a product we are selling and how it works in a market," says Jim Paugh, a commercial crossbred producer north of Belgrade.

Paugh is one of 400 Montana Beef Quality Assurance certified producers. That means he is part of a program intended to improve beef quality and buyer confidence in their product at both the feedlot and grocery. The education program is run by the Montana State University Extension Service. It is part of the Montana Beef Network, which has broader beef quality and cattle management goals and is jointly facilitated by the Montana Stockgrowers Association, MSU and the MSU Extension Service.

Though only two years old, the program already has buyer-advocates.

"I'd love to have more steers from the Montana Beef Network," says Mike Briggs, of Briggs Feedlot in Seward, Neb. "I wish more people would get involved with it." Briggs added that when he buys network-certified cattle, "I'm getting cattle that I know have been handled properly, and I know they've had preconditioning shots. The other thing is that it allows me to add value to them by putting them into the Nebraska CornFed Beef Program." The Nebraska program requires source-verified and beef-quality-certified cattle.

Producers can take the classes of the Montana Beef Network without becoming a certified producer. Or they can pay a $20 per ranch fee and take training every two years to be certified producers. Some take it even further. There are 150 of the certified producers who also chose to certify their cattle over 21,000 cattle in 1999, says Quinn Holzer, a network coordinator with the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

To be certified, cattle must be raised by producers who agree to strictly follow FDA, USDA and EPA guidelines, to keep individual records of all treatments, to strive to prevent bruising, stress and injury to the animal during handling, and to transfer all those records with the cattle to the next production level.

In addition, most certified cattle are tracked by an electronic ear tag. Much as a grocery store uses bar-codes to track information such as price and items sold, the ear tag is the key to getting information back to the producer from the feed lot and processing plant. With the uniquely coded ear tag, Paugh, or any of the other producers with certified cattle, could find out that an Angus steer sired by a bull called "Black Gold" with a mother named something like "Black Diamond" produced choice meat, whereas one by the same sire and a different dam, raised and fed under the same conditions, only made select quality.

"We're trying to encourage producers to do all of those things that can help bring dollars back to them and also benefit the consumer," says Cheyenne Cundall, a network coordinator with the Montana Stockgrowers' Association.

Certified producers are taught that such cattle-friendly recommendations as "reducing stress" on the animal reduces not only cattle injuries and sickness, but increases handling efficiency, all things that improve the "bottom line."

But do quality-certified cattle make more money for producers?

That's hard to verify so early in the program, says John Paterson, MSU Extension Service beef cattle specialist. Paterson said the research is clear that healthy steers make more money in feedlot net returns than sick steers, but he is just now collecting data to determine profitability of Montana Beef Network-certified steers versus other marketed steers.

The Montana program has shown, however, that producers can "dramatically reduce the number of out cattle," those rejected at the packing plant for a variety of reasons, says Cundall.

Briggs is much more direct about just what a certified steer is worth to him compared to other market steers.

"Do I discount cattle that aren't certified? No. They are worth zero. It is the difference between me bidding on your cattle and me giving you nothing," says Briggs, whose feedlot finishes between 20,000 and 22,000 steers each year.

On the other hand, much of the value of the program comes from information gathered by following certified cattle from birth to beef.

Producers learn not just carcass weight and quality and yield grade, but also about the various systems through which they can be marketed. By selling through the system geared toward their type of cattle carcass, the prices received should be the best possible for the cattle at hand. Various systems include breed-specific alliances, such as Certified Angus Beef and Certified Hereford Beef, but also carcass-specific options such as Laura's Lean Beef targeted toward carcasses that grade select.

If a producer's cattle tend to grade select, one of the lean beef options may work best. On the other hand, the information the producer gains may let him or her decide to change the ranch's breeding program to target another marketing system.

"I think you're going to need at least three years of feedback before you change your program, get different bulls or something like that," says Paugh.

Jake Callantine, who runs a Black Angus ranch near Belgrade, agrees.

"I'm a purebred operator, and I know the sire and dam of every steer. If I can get individual data back, I can see what is working and what is not and I will change selection of stock based on that information. . . I put all my steers in the (Montana Beef Network) program. To get honest and complete data back, you can't be choosey. You have to put everything in."

As Briggs says, "The person with the most information wins. . . . You can't manage what you can't measure."

Callantine adds that soon the business will get to the point where all sales are value-based.

"In the beef industry, we had better be willing to prove what our cattle will do hanging on the rail, that they will cut to a certain degree, and if they don't make it, we'll get docked," says Callantine.

Montana Beef Network information also takes the form of connections between producers, educators, associations and buyers.

It "lets people like us down here in Nebraska get in touch with like-minded people up there. We can produce a situation of vertical coordination, all working together rather than the age-old competition," says Briggs.

As to additional opportunities for Montana cattle producers, Briggs adds that he would also like to see more than just fall steers.

"If there are guys up there that feed through the winter and sell as yearlings after being on grass, I'm looking for them, too. . . Montana has been far and away one of the most progressive states about this. Those producers are different. Those producers are progressive and forward thinking. They want to get the information back to improve their quality.

Beef: Questions & Answers is a joint project between MSU Extension and the Montana Beef Council. This column informs producers about current consumer education, promotion and research projects funded through the $1 per head checkoff. For more information, contact the Montana Beef Council at (406) 442-5111 or at

View Text-only Version Text-only Updated: 08/14/2009
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