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
love to have more steers from the Montana Beef
Network...I wish more people would get involved
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
"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
"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'
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
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
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
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
"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
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,"
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org