As consumers become more aware of where the beef they eat comes from, they are also becoming more interested in the history of that animal. Because of the growing interest in animal traceability, government programs are being developed for ranchers who are willing to keep better records on their animals and manage them to meet program requirements. Those producers can earn a premium when they market their calves.
“The industry is continuing to change,” said Lynn Gordon, Nebraska Department of Agriculture Ag Promotion and Development Division Administrator. “More consumers are interested in knowing where the product comes from and a way to trace it when they go to purchase it in the grocery store.” Gordon spoke about verification possibilities for beef producers during the Sandhills Cattle Association 71st Annual Convention in Broken Bow, NE.
Verification processes are in place for both domestic and international markets if beef producers choose to take advantage of them. Depending upon the type of program a producer decides to participate in, premiums of 60 cents up to $44 a head were paid in 2009 for qualifying calves.
One of the more common programs available to producers is the source and age verification program. Some source and age programs are USDA-audited programs. According to Gordon, audits add integrity to the program by backing the document claims being made, and making sure the proper paperwork is matched with the product when it enters the marketplace.
“The USDA created an export verification program shortly after the BSE outbreak in the United States,” Gordon said. “The source and age verification program has been going seven to eight years now, since BSE, and the Japanese issuing a requirement on the age of cattle. Under this program, we are able to verify the animal is under 20 months of age, according to the Japanese requirement.”
In order to participate in the source and age program, producers need to keep calving records, either individually or by group. “They can use the age of the very first calf born in that group, and group them together because there will be no other calves in that group older than the first calf born,” Gordon explained. For audit purposes, producers will need to write the calving dates in a cow/calf book or on a calendar. Gordon said they will also need to show documentation during an audit to prove they have the number of cattle they are marketing. Calves can not be purchased and brought into this program, she explained. Proper documentation includes tax or cattle inventory records.
Animal identification is important, Gordon noted. “If you don’t have a calving season, you have to minimally identify them as a group,” she explained. “You can’t co-mingle the cattle with other cattle outside their group. Cattle that are tagged can not be paired with cattle that aren’t tagged,” she said.
“I cannot stress enough how important it is to keep organized paperwork if you plan to participate in these verification programs,” she stressed. “It could come down to determining how you will market your cattle.”
Some programs have permanent tags that are placed in the calves. These tags will follow the calves from the ranch, to the feedlot and ultimately the packing plant. Some programs require calves be tagged with a permanent ear tag no other animal in the country will have. “The tags should be applied before the animal leaves the ranch,” Gordon told the group. “If you want to keep opening up opportunities, you may want to invest in a permanent electronic tag. You can discuss with the verification company what type of tags they would like you to have.”
Depending upon which program a producer is interested in, different costs may be charged to become verified. “Some companies charge a flat fee, and some charge by the tag,” she explained. “You won’t be able to market your calves as source and age verified without enrolling in an approved source and age verification program – either through a company or by writing your own program and having it approved.”
Gordon said the opportunities for verified cattle are endless. In addition to source and age verification programs, there are natural programs, Never Ever 3, and Nebraska Verified.
The natural programs are one of four programs that is not USDA-approved through an audit system. “The claims for this program can vary greatly from program to program,” Gordon said. The calves are sold with a signed affidavit stating the calves meet the requirements of the program. Gordon added the requirements can vary from company to company.
The Never Ever 3 is a program stating the cattle have received no antibiotics, no growth promotants and have been fed no animal by-products. The Nebraska-Verified program is for calves that were born and fed in Nebraska.
“Marketing returns can be earned just by doing a little extra paperwork,” said Gordon. “Look at it as an investment. By enrolling in a source and age verification program, other opportunities may open up. Some producers have went on to obtain other information like carcass data or genetic testing to produce and market better calves,” she said. “What is important is to look at all the options out there, and see what will work for you.”
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