Beef cattle farms still look like something out of the Wild West, with Wrangler-wearing, weather-beaten men on horseback, everyone sporting tall white hats. But then this happens: Out in the pasture a generator starts, a farmhand wheels over an ultrasound machine. A cow's flank gets lubed up and the transducer is angled to get a good shot at the cross-section of the ribeye. ¶ In real time, on a live cow, ranchers are assessing feed needs and strategies, aiming for a USDA grade of choice or prime. And on most ranches, iPads have become essential tools for monitoring temperatures, humidity and what's happening out in the field. Without abandoning the lasso or the branding iron, Florida's cattlemen have embraced new technology with a vengeance. ¶ On a farm-to-fork tour sponsored by the Florida Beef Council earlier this month, a group of food-industry professionals visited a half dozen Florida beef cattle farms. From cow-calf operations birthing babies to feedlots fattening nearly grown cows, each employed cutting-edge scientific and technological innovations to get the job done.
Cattle were first introduced to North America through Florida in 1521 by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. And although most Florida middle-schoolers have vivid images of Florida's early cattlemen courtesy of Patrick Smith's A Land Remembered, in recent decades it's the "beef belt" in the central U.S. — from North Dakota to Texas — where commercial beef production, slaughter and processing are concentrated. Still, Florida has a central role in the life cycle of beef cattle: Many Florida ranchers operate cow-calf operations that supply calves to those Midwest states where they are fattened up before slaughter.
Most American cows finish their lives eating corn, which Florida doesn't have much of. What Florida has in abundance is the grass that 940,000 calves graze on every year in Florida after they are weaned.
Tom Harper runs an 800-head Red Angus purebred seedstock herd on 1,040 acres in Trenton, near Fanning Springs in Gilchrist County. Seedstock operations are the breeders — the genetic suppliers — and it starts to get high-tech pretty quickly. On land that has been in his family since the early 1900s, he has implemented the kinds of new tools one would expect of someone who spent 33 years in the aerospace industry.
"I was very used to data management and the hard- and software that goes with it," Harper says. "I came in to the cattle business with that kind of background, so that's how we approached genetics and tracking key characteristics of an animal."
He tracks cow fertility and birth weight of each calf. A low birth weight is important because it reduces stress on the mother. After that, Harper monitors how quickly each calf grows before it is weaned. He even partners with feedlots to maintain spreadsheets even after the animals are no longer in his care.
"Now a group of us is tracking feed efficiency. It's a question of how many pounds of feed a day are consumed. What we're shooting for in a feedlot is five pounds of dry matter to put on one pound of weight."
But here's where it gets cool. Electronic readable tags on each animal mean this data gets collected continuously. When a calf gets run through a chute for vaccination or other care, readers attached to the chute connect to the rancher's iPad.
Then Roger West, a commercial cattleman and veterinarian in Alachua County, shows up. A professor in the University of Florida Animal Science Department for 30 years, West retired to run an animal ultrasound business, a technology he says was developed for the cattle business by Florida, Cornell and Iowa State in the mid-1980s.
"We were doing research to determine accuracy and develop the best protocol to get the best results. And now most of the seedstock people use (ultrasound). It costs $15 to $20 a head, and you generally do ultrasound once at a year old to determine carcass characteristics. The values at that juncture are more indicative of what that animal will look like at slaughter," West said.
He goes on to say that in the past couple of years, DNA sampling has become another way to measure some of the same traits in an animal.
"That is beginning to really be popular," West said. "There are cards that you put a drop of blood on, or you pull a couple hairs and send those off to Pfizer or wherever. They send you back the information that this bull has traits for marbling more than the next animal. It's also being used for parentage determination."
According to West, bulls are sold with all this accompanying data, a kind of genetic resume. For consumers, this data comes at a price. Sophisticated documentation of cows as they change hands, moving from birth to T-bone (a time span that can take not much more than a year), adds to the wholesale and retail cost. But with food-safety issues and contamination scares mounting, tracking our food's provenance is of increasing importance to many consumers.
Ken Griner and Lynetta Usher Griner run Usher Land and Timber in Chiefland, on land that was in Lynetta's family in the 1950s. She runs the timber business and he runs the ranch with 700 cows and 2,000 stockers (cows that have been weaned and are pasture grazing before going on to a feedlot).
According to Ken, artificial insemination is a boon to ranchers.
"When you're marketing cattle you want a uniform product because it's easier to sell animals of a similar size."
If cows are artificially inseminated, many of them on exactly the same day, calves will be born all together. He had 41 calves born between Oct. 14 and 15.
"That makes it easier in every aspect. We take better care of those animals. It's more efficient for them and for us and it gives us a better chance to do a good job."
And the semen in question has to be of high quality.
"If you're trying to improve a herd, you use high-quality semen. I can't afford to buy a $100,000 bull but I can use a $100,000 bull."
Certainly a new spin on the why-buy-the-cow-if-you-can-get-the-milk-for-free old saw.
Griner also uses electronic identification of cows, partly because being able to prove the age of a cow increases its value (for Asian markets a cow legally needed to be less than 20 months to be exported, although that recently changed to 30 months). As the cattle moves through the chute, a wand is waved to pop up all the data on that animal on a computer or handheld.
And for breeding, Griner uses expected progeny differences to provide estimates of the genetic value of an animal as a parent.
"You need to predict features and traits of bulls that will be passed along, things like calving ease, yearling weights, marbling and docility. Docility may sound weird but it's hugely important, because stress is the No. 1 enemy of cattle."
For each cattle operation goals are unique, so sought-after genetic markers may be different.
"Technology has enabled us to make much better decisions," says Griner, "It's no longer just a beauty contest when you go to buy bulls."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293.