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What’s the value to me?” That’s the first question producers ask of any new product or service and, as such, it became the founding principle of Cow/Calf Health Management Services (CCHMS), owned and operated by Dr. Troy Drake from his clinic on the farm near Kathyrn, Alta.

CCHMS is a unique package of herd health and performance recording, management and marketing services wrapped into one program that has been helping his clients add value to their production since 2005. Most recently, CCHMS has expanded into a network with another nine independent veterinary clinics and an agrology consulting firm coming into the fold.

The door is open to veterinarians across North America to sign on. The overarching goal is to build a critical mass of calves that would be eligible to brand on how they were raised, Drake explains. That includes attributes such as age, source, process and handling verification, as well as health, vaccination and feed certification by the managing veterinarian.

“Many calves already have these types of attributes, but producers haven’t been getting value for them from the marketplace,” Drake says. “At the opposite end of the value chain, there is a strong pull for traceable beef from retailers, but they have difficulty sourcing it.”

CCHMS facilitates complete and verifiable traceability of each animal’s history from the time it enters the herd until it is sold or dies. This is achieved through a web-based data management program called TraceBack, which Drake developed as a way for his clients not only to store herd health and production data, but to help make management decisions.

Backing up a step, since 1994, Drake had been offering his clients a rudimentary herd health program that included about 10 services for an annual per-cow fee. As herd health protocols became standardized with effective vaccination programs and long-acting anti-microbials for treatment, he found himself becoming less involved with providing direct veterinary care. At the same time, he realized there was a growing need for nutrition and record-keeping/management services. His experience with Feedlot Health Management Services out of Okotoks, Alta. had shown him that detailed individual health and performance records are powerful management tools for feedlot operators, yet there seemed to be a lack of that type of service in the cow-calf sector.

So it was back to the books to take several computer programming course at the University of Calgary. With assistance from people he met there, Drake developed the TraceBack database that has become the cornerstone of CCHMS. He now employs one full-time database programmer and two business intelligence developers.

TraceBack enables the managing veterinarians to work with their clients on three fronts: using TraceBack to collect data and interpreting the reports to make management decisions; facilitating retained ownership and marketing of finished cattle; and developing feeding programs for wintering cows and backgrounding and finishing calves.

Today, there are 72 herds enrolled on TraceBack. The herd sizes range anywhere from 40 to nearly 4,000 cows, averaging about 200 cows. The service appeals to producers within the managing veterinarian’s regular client base as well as producers from outside the region who consult with their own local veterinarians on routine herd-health- matters and use TraceBack to assist with their overall management. The managing veterinarian is notifi ed by email each time a health event occurs and the event is reviewed prior to committing it to the database. In this way, the managing veterinarian provides continuous surveillance of all health events and is able to verify the health record if required.

Retaining ownership of your calves through the feedlot to harvest is really the key to increasing the profitability of your cow herd because it gives you access to individual animal performance and carcass data that will help you make better management decisions and builds a bank of information about your herd that will give you bargaining power in the marketplace.

“Everyone recognizes there is a lot of value in retaining ownership of their calves after weaning, but many producers seem reluctant to engage,” Drake says. He finds that the downside for most producers is that they need money in the fall and retaining ownership would upset the balance in the business. Then, there’s the monthly feedlot bill if they have their calves custom fed or perhaps the cost of purchasing additional feed to finish them on the ranch. Limited experience and access in marketing fat cattle is another barrier for many producers.

Drake has systematically eliminated those concerns by forming strategic alliances with investors to purchase a percentage of the calves in pen-sharing arrangements, with financial companies to help finance feed costs if necessary, and with packers to purchase the finished calves and make the individual carcass data available to CCHMS.

He says it’s never a problem to find investors. They love the program because it reduces the risk for them when they can buy into a pen of calves with known histories sourced directly from farms and many believe it’s just simply the right approach all around.

FEED PROGRAM

Nutrition is a critical component for both health and performance regardless of the stage of production.

TraceBack is set up to log the feed program for the cow-calf operation as well as for calves fed out at home or in a custom lot so that the managing veterinarian is able to certify the feed program if necessary.

The cow-calf client can grant permission to the feeder to enter feed, treatment and performance data for the calves within his or her web-based TraceBack account. All parties — the managing veterinarian, cow-calf producer and feedlot operator — can work with the data simultaneously.

The computer program generates and emails a daily progress report from the feedlot to the producer so there are no surprises at the end of the month. Producers who live a distance from the feedlot and are unable to drop in to see their calves really appreciate this feature, he adds.

As a rule of thumb, CCHMS aligns with smaller family-run feedlots. Drake says it’s proving to be a win-win arrangement because it helps the feedlots source verifiable calves directly from the ranch to reduce health risk, and cow-calf producers feel confident that the operators will have time to pay attention to details for their cattle.

WHAT TRACEBACK TELLS YOU

All that cow-calf producers need to collect the information that goes into the TraceBack database is a computer with Internet access, their regular calving book and an RFID reader to scan the animal identification numbers every time a process is carried out on an individual animal or groups of animals. The information is uploaded from the reader to the database or later on if a chute-side computer is not available or suitable for the conditions. The program was rigourously field-tested for efficiency during its development to ensure the scanning and data collection process wouldn’t slow down routine handling and processing procedures, Drake adds.

TraceBack is capable of generating 17 summary reports including inventory, health treatments, routing processes, products used, calving, pasture movement and breeding groups, and performance of sire, dam and offspring. Depending on the type of report, monthly, weekly and daily statements are sent out automatically via email. Clients can also log into the TraceBack server to generate their own reports.

It’s a lot of numbers and graphs for producers to pore through. “What it all comes down to is profitability — you might have a lot of good cows, but are they profitable cows? The two don’t necessarily go arm in arm,” Drake explains. “Producers need to make use of all available information to help maximize efficiency and profitability.”

He developed a computer-generated cow-classification system to help producers interpret the information for the purpose of making management decisions. All of the raw data for each cow and her offspring is compiled into an annual “rolling cow performance” report. The ranking for each parameter is relative to her herdmates, he explains. Cows from different herds (owners) are never compared with one another because there is too much variance in management practices and general environments to be able to compare them fairly. Drake also points out that the median, rather than average numbers are used to determine the ranking because the outliers at the top and bottom ends can have a marked effect on the average, especially in smaller groups.

The 10 most economically important traits as identified by the producer are used to classify the cows into platinum, gold, silver, bronze and standard categories. In order to classify a cow, she must have offspring for which carcass information is available. A plus suffix, for example, Platinum+, indicates that the cow has three or more calves in her data set, which suggests that her performance is repeatable.

A feature that clients really appreciate is a bound book version of each cow’s individual performance summary for the year. It’s easy to carry along during the summer when checking or working the cows and it gets producers in the habit of continuously evaluating their cows based on facts.

Producers learn how to use the system to improve overall productivity and profitability of their herds by selecting replacement heifers from the top cows and flagging cows from the bottom end of the breeding herd.

TraceBack also generates a “sire performance summary” report, which is based on records of the progeny from all of the yearling and two-year- old bulls. Sires can be matched to their progeny using DNA technology to provide additional ammunition to identify the bottom end of sires in multi-sire breeding pastures. Producers who may want to raise their own seedstock from calves reared in their environment and production systems can do so using a strategy to target their best genetics by mating their top cows with top bulls.

For more information visit www.cowcalfhealth.com or call 403-935- 4855.

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