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Traceability....or....Data Harvesting?

Ever feel like you are being listened to and watched when you get on your phone or computer and see ads pop up?

The short answer is you are. The websites you visit and the searches you perform create packets of data that are stored and added to your profile. Who controls and uses your profile data collected on Google, Facebook, Twitter, or your favorite game? Depends on the privacy and data agreement which you agreed to when you downloaded the app. This data can and is used to create advertising algorithms and search response algorithms to provide results for you and push advertisements they decide are right for you.

Let’s discuss traceability. How valuable is the data? What is the value of the data for a one-time event and a catastrophic event at that? Given the potential impact of a foreign animal disease on the entire beef industry speeding up the trace and identification of animal ZERO still doesn’t remove the fact that we now have disease XYZ in the US.

It should be noted that this call for more traceability overlooks the report published by the USDA regarding their study of animal disease traceability ( The Animal Disease Traceability (ADT)program was established in 2013 to improve the trace of livestock in the event of a disease event. The ADT is a performance-based program and since its implementation has seen a downward trend in the time required to complete traces. The baseline in 2013 was 490 hours prior to the ADT program and by the 2019-2020 years this time was down to 11.5 for 3 of the 4 tracing measures. In the years 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 the program shows that most cooperators (Fed, State, and Tribal Animal Health officials) are capable of completing any the tracing measures in less than 1 hour.

What is in the data? If every animal is “mandated” to be tagged that means in theory, there is a database or databases with the identification and location of every bovine in the country. How much is that data worth? I propose that to those with the ability to view and analyze that data, it’s worth more than its weight in gold. Imagine an exact count and location of the dairy herd, breeding herd, cattle on grass, cattle in feed yards in the USA. The data would allow its “owners” to know an exact count and location of every calf born, providing an ability estimate when they may be ready to hit the feedyards and sale barns. Wouldn’t you want to know that you need to sell this week because there is a glut of animals coming in the next week or two? If you knew that you had the only breeding stock left in your area, because everyone else has sent theirs to the feedyard, wouldn’t this information impact decision process for your operational plans?

Now let’s add more data to that “traceability” dataset that has been “mandated”. The first input would probably be the pedigree of the animal, in addition to location and date of birth. Second, vaccination schedules, antibiotics, and supplements. Now on to feed and ration information including timing and nutritional data. And finally it’s time to harvest. All the data from the harvest is now entered in the system for the animal.

Change this data from one animal to the entire cattle herd. A dataset of the performance and production data of every animal and operation in the country. What is this data worth? Who has control of this data? Who truly owns this data?

Once you sell your animal does the next operator in the production chain get access to and ownership of the data you have collected? Data that includes your family’s blood, sweat and tears that have created your operation and its genetics and way of operating. When the feedyard sells the animal to the packer for harvest does the packer now get your data and the feedyard’s data? Who then gets the harvest data? Do you get all or only a portion of the harvest data? What data is provided to the feedyard? What is the third-party data collection / storage company now able to do with this complete set of data? Can “BIG BEEF DATA, INC” process all this data and sell it?

Let’s break this down again. Data provides information that drives decisions. Decisions that will impact every step in the production chain from the bottom up. The optimist says we all get better. The pessimist says only packers and big business will benefit. The realist says that only those that have the capital and technical abilities to obtain, control, and process the data will benefit.

Personally, as an engineer I tend to fall into the realist category. Few operations will have the ability to process this mountain of data to fully capture its value. Large corporations already have this type of data mining operation in place, they are already doing this to make operational and marketing decisions. Companies are buying, selling, creating, and trading data collected from their in-house operations, their webpage, phone applications, or data brokers.

Take this all in and think back to your phone and all the crazy ads that pop up. Remember that time you visited Cabela’s and then the next day you see a popup ad from Cabela’s on solitaire? All the data is collected, mined, and brokered to facilitate more precise business decisions. How much different will this be in agriculture? Imagine if there are entities with a full real time accurate picture of what is in the pen, in the pasture, or headed to be harvested.

Traceability is the term of the day but it’s really about data. Data is the real currency!

Matthew T. Steele, Ph.D., P.E.

CEO / Executive Director

Kansas Cattlemen’s Association


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