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Age verification is getting old

Nobody wants to say age verification isn’t worth the hassle, but neither will they say it is, at least not in the way cow-calf producers would like to see, with premiums.

One message that does come across loud and clear is that incorrect birthdates create headaches and losses all along the value chain.

The responsibility for entering correct birthdates in the Canadian Livestock Tracking System (CLTS) falls squarely on cow-calf producers because only they or, their designated third party, can age verify their calves.

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CLTS is the national cattle traceability database administered by the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA) for all of Canada, except Quebec, which has its own mandated system.

Age verification remains a voluntary service on the CLTS except in Alberta where legislation still requires birthdates be posted before cattle leave the home farm or by 10 months of age, whichever comes first. Everywhere else age can be verified at any time so long as it’s by the original owner.

There is no cost involved other than the initial price of the CCIA tags and the time to register the birthdates.

Even at that price, the number of producers who bother to age verify has been declining fairly steadily since 2010.

Changes to the CLTS software and the appearance of high-speed Internet access in rural areas has eliminated some of the problems with entering birthdates, but errors still appear. Producers have the choice of registering an actual birth for specific CCIA tag numbers, or the first birthdate for a series of tag numbers.

“Human error putting in information, such as the wrong year, might seem like a simple mistake, but it has a huge impact along the way,” says CCIA general manager Anne Brunet-Burgess.

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The program prompts people several times to double-check the accuracy of the birthdates. It also includes a reminder that birthdates must be reported only for tags that have been applied to animals.

This leads to the second area of concern. For the sake of convenience, some producers age verify all tags in a package under one birthdate range before applying them to animals. This seems to happen most often when a third party, such as a tag retailer, does the age verification, Brunet-Burgess explains.

The problems occur when producers save the unused tags in this batch and put them into older mature animals or calves born later in the year, next year and even later.

At $3 per tag, it may be understandable why producers wouldn’t want to waste the unused ones, but Lyle Miller of Highway 21 Feeders near Acme, Alta., says the producer’s savings end up costing the buyer of his calves a lot more when they are marketed as fat cattle.

By his calculation, Miller, who represents the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association on the CCIA board, says a 900-pound under-30-month animal that showed up at a packer with an over-30-month (OTM) tag in its ear in April would have been discounted by something like $270-$300 per head to cover the extra cost of removing and disposing of specified risk material, and the loss of potential premium on this otherwise prime steer.

Some plants check age according to the tag and confirm over-30-month animals by dentition. Others check only the tag, because not having to verify age by dentition or ossification of the spine saves time on the line, Miller explains.

Most of the time feedlots don’t have ready access to birthdate information until they’ve paid for calves, scanned them in and have the tag numbers to check on the CLTS for themselves. If a few tags verified in a range starting April 1, 2014, show up in a group of calves ranging from April 1, 2015, “All that does is tell us that we’ll have to invest time to correct the error, or that we’re going to get discounted,” Miller says.

To correct an obvious birthdate error the feedlot has to contact a CCIA customer support person who will try to contact the herd of origin for permission to change the date of birth. In Alberta, government field representatives are the first point of contact.

“One of four things could happen,” Brunet-Burgess explains. “The producer could look at his records and give us permission to correct the error. Some say they don’t remember but allow us to remove the birthdate. Others say, ‘I’m just going to leave it’, or we can’t get hold of them.”

She urges cattle feeders to check for birthdate information well ahead of shipping the cattle so the CCIA has time to do all of this leg work needed to correct any errors. Better yet would be to verify the birthdates before purchasing the cattle.

“The fact is, one wrongful age is one too many,” Miller says. “Incorrect data in the system is a cost to plants, feedlots and cow-calf producers. We lose marketing opportunities and incur unnecessary cost. It’s a lose-lose.”

Conversely, it is relatively easy for the farm of origin to remove the original birthdates associated with unused tags. Instructions on how to do it are found in the resource centre on the CCIA website, or by calling CCIA support staff at 403-275-2083.

Why age verify?

Canadian Cattlemen’s Association general manager, Rob McNabb says age verification is still a useful tool when negotiating for market access, although not nearly as critical as it was in the early years after BSE was found in Canada.

“Back then, Japan would only accept beef from cattle under 21 months of age. With dentition, it’s difficult to detect the age difference between animals that are say 20, 21 or 22 months old. Now, Japan is in line with the rest of the world and it’s much easier to tell by dentition whether an animal is over or under 30 months,” he explains.

Canadian plants also have a lot more experience now identifying under-30-month cattle (UTM) by dentition and ossification today because of our SRM regulations and the need to certify UTM beef for certain export markets such as Japan, China and some smaller markets.

The only reason for age verifying slaughter and non-slaughter cattle headed to the U.S. was pretty much moot after the U.S. implemented its final rule on BSE in 2007. Since then only cattle and bison born after March 1, 1999, recognized as the effective enforcement date for Canada’s ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban, are eligible for export.

Electronic age verification on the CLTS is recognized by the U.S. but for purebred breeding stock all other countries require breed association registration papers, which include exact birthdates.

The premiums that buyers once offered for age-verified calves have pretty well disappeared, as well.

“None of my customers are asking for age verification on feeder cattle and none are paying premiums, says Rick Wright, an order buyer from Virden, Man. “Most nowadays are more concerned about health protocols.” Wright buys for customers from Alberta through Quebec and, as executive administrator of the Livestock Markets Association of Canada, feels fairly safe in saying this trend is across the board. As the association’s representative to the CCIA, he’s also very familiar with the problems caused by improperly-aged cattle.

Even though age-verified calves aren’t fetching premium, he still advises his cow-calf customers to take the time to correctly age verify their cattle because having their records backed up in the CLTS could prove useful if markets change their policies, or a niche opportunity comes along.

“There are still some potential synergies there, maybe just not the financial reward producers want to see. It doesn’t cost anything and it’s getting easier to do all the time now that more people have high-speed Internet, so why not?”

Age verification is not a requirement of the Verified Beef Production Plus program but is for cattle registered on the Beef InfoXchange System as this is often a requirement for data that may be purchased for research trials.

By the numbers

The decline in the number of producers submitting birthdates for beef cattle in all but the Maritimes seems to reflect declining market demand for this information in tandem with the overall decline in the number of cow-calf producers.

Age verifying by beef producers peaked between 2008 and 2010 in the West and Ontario while Quebec’s numbers remain relatively static.

Since then the percentage of age verified calves has declined steadily every year from 43 per cent in all provinces but Quebec in 2012 down to 24 per cent in 2015, the last complete year. B.C. topped the list last year at 40 per cent of calves with reported birthdates, followed by Alberta at 32 per cent, Ontario at 19 per cent, Manitoba 14 per cent and Saskatchewan 12 per cent.

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