Where’s the beef – been?

By Derek Pfeifer

Ellis senior

Steak: Everybody loves it. The vast majority of people in today’s society can walk into a restaurant or grocery store and have a big, juicy steak on their plate within the hour and think nothing of it.

On the surface, the beef industry looks fairly straightforward. Cattle are raised on farms and end up in the aforementioned restaurant or grocery store. However, the beef industry is extremely complex, with many different stages of production where cattle are always being bought, sold and hauled all over the country. The different phases of beef production are:

1.   Cow/Calf Phase – Calves are born and raised on a ranch, where they stay until they are weaned off the cow.

2.   Backgrounding Phase – Calves are weaned at around 650 lbs. and transition from a milk diet to a low-cost forage-based diet and prepared for a feedlot.

3.   Feedlot Phase – At about 850 lbs., calves enter the feedlot for intensive feeding for rapid and efficient growth and finishing.

4.   Packer Phase – At around 1400 lbs., calves are sent to a packing plant to be harvested and processed.

Between these four phases, cattle are typically sold at a sale barn and then sent to the next phase. Cattle can change ownership two or three times and end up at up to five or six different locations throughout their lives. This constant moving and comingling brings up the need for traceability.

Following the outbreak in 2003 of BSE, otherwise known as Mad Cow Disease, and seeing its effects on export markets, the USDA started a preliminary traceability program, but it failed. However, in 2013 the USDA launched the Animal Disease Traceability Program (ADT), which is “a useful but extremely limited program that remains in place today,” wrote John Maday in Bovine Veterinarian magazine.

He continued, “The current ADT program focuses on interstate movement of breeding–age cattle, 18 months of age or older, and dairy cattle. The program exempts beef calves and feeder cattle, which travel in the greatest numbers and pose the greatest risk for spreading disease as they move through marketing channels and co-mingle with cattle from multiple sources.”

Recognizing the need for a traceability program for the feeder cattle industry, the state of Kansas, Kansas State University’s Beef Cattle Institute, and other partners began working on a traceability system called CattleTrace. Brad White, DVM, MS, director of the Beef Cattle Institute at Kansas State University, said, “CattleTrace is important because it can protect export markets, bring feeder cattle into the traceability world, allow for a faster and more targeted response to disease outbreak, and facilitate faster resumption of commerce in case of a disease outbreak. CattleTrace is pilot program focused on ranch-to-slaughter traceability for disease surveillance and intervention.”

The program works by tagging cattle with ultra-high-frequency tags. The program is designed to collect an individual animal’s ID number, a GPS location, date, and time, which is the basic information necessary for tracking a disease outbreak.

“We know for a traceability system to be effective, it needs to be simple, fast, and affordable to make its adoption within the industry as seamless as possible,” said White. Using UHF tags and readers at sale barns, feed yards, and packing plants, the program has three primary objectives:

1.   Develop an infrastructure for an animal disease traceability system.

2.   Evaluate the efficiency and capabilities of the animal disease traceability system and infrastructure.

3.   Determine the value of an animal disease traceability system throughout the supply chain.

The need for a traceability system, such as CattleTrace, to prevent or contain a disease outbreak is extremely important. Infectious and contagious diseases such as FMD – foot-and-mouth disease – a highly contagious viral disease that can cause illness in animals with divided hooves, can have a devastating economic impact on individual cattle producers as well as the whole agricultural industry.

Dustin Pendell, a Kansas State University agricultural economist who specializes in animal health economics, used data from FMD spread models to examine the economic impact of an outbreak. He estimated that an FMD outbreak in this region, with no emergency vaccination program, could result in losses to producers and consumers of approximately $188 billion and additional government losses of $11 billion due to controlling livestock movement and depopulating infected livestock.

However, if an aggressive emergency vaccination program was implemented, such as a 30-mile vaccination zone from the outbreak, losses could be reduced to approximately $56 billion for producers and consumers and $1.1 billion in government costs. A traceability program would be a huge aid in implementing an emergency vaccination program.

A traceability program would have inherent costs to producers. From buying UHF tags and readers and possibly added labor, cost of production would slightly increase. A National Cattlemen Beef Association feasibility study on traceability systems estimates increased costs of $2.65-$4.65 per head for cow-calf operations, 15 cents-82 cents per head for stockers and backgrounders, 13 cents-82 cents per head for feedlots, and 19 cents per head for packing plants.

However, these extra costs could end up being small compared to the gains made for producers. With traceability, producers could have easy entry into value-added programs, easy and efficient herd record-keeping systems, and increased export markets.

Most importantly, a traceability system would effectively help ensure a safe food supply for consumers at restaurants and grocery stores.

Derek Pfeifer, a 2017 Ellis High School graduate, is a senior majoring in general agriculture at Fort Hays State University. He is the son of Dave and LuAnn Pfeifer, Ellis.

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