Meristem Land and Science: Driving Progress in Sustainability


Data: The big opportunity for beef improvement

But the beef industry is playing catchup

Posted: December 18, 2015

Photo credit: Calgary Stampede

The world of sports calls it analytics. Watch Sidney Crosby play, watch a rookie from the minors playing their first pro hockey game and listen to the announcers. You'll hear many statistics describing how they play the game and in-depth analysis of why they are or aren't meeting performance objectives.

Statistics, once confined to Don Cherry rants and color commentary during playtime have moved to the business side of hockey. Teams use data to develop business strategies, select athletes and determine how they will be rewarded. Professional sports management is favoring young guns with interest and experience in this new world of analytics.

And so it is with agriculture. Data is in the headlines many times these days as companies align strategically to better serve the industry. The ability to collect and move information has grown tremendously, but the biggest change on the horizon is the ability to interpret that data for decision making and make the knowledge seamlessly available to more people.

Deborah Wilson certainly understands that challenge. She is senior vice-president for one of the most innovative front line players in the beef data business in Canada, the Beef InfoXChange System (BIXS).

Deborah Wilson, senior VP BIXS

It's a database and web application to assist in the capture and exchange of economically beneficially individual animal and carcass data across the Canadian beef supply chain. With the new emphasis on data, BIXS now hovers on the edge of a sea change for industry management.

Here are six key points Wilson thinks are critical to driving improvement in the beef industry.

The money's in the sharing. Lots of people have collected data for many years, but the beef world wasn't very good at sharing data, says Wilson.

BIXS was set up to do that. Information sharing anchors its industry model.

"The industry has long understood the potential to capture and exchange economically beneficial individual animal data," she says. "We deliver that data to benefit the entire supply chain by improving communications and sharing across the entire beef chain."

What's the economic value? Wilson brings personal experience from her time in the seedstock business running upwards of 1,000 cows. "Imagine if we could eliminate the bottom 10 or 20 percent of the worst producing animals in any number of different categories," she says.

"Think genomics, if we could track animals with superior carcass quality. What would that mean to packers to have better cutability, better marbling or more predictability? What if we age verified and could show some animals finish months earlier than others? That's less feed, less carbon footprint and many associated economic benefits.

"Once you start really looking at data objectively, you understand the power it brings," she says. "And a critical fact for beef producers is that it applies to small herds as well as large."

Finding the marketing sweet spot. There are real potential benefits to the individual producer to communicate, build business opportunities and hone marketing programs.

When that happens, and the value chain buys in, it's possible that feedlots may be willing to bid more actively for animals that come with a birth report. And packers can improve market intelligence and capitalize on deeper post-slaughter analytics.

Park the pride: Learn from the leaders. Beef producers have a lot of pride in their product and industry and sometimes it's hard to acknowledge that other parts of their industry or other industries are ahead in data use. But the fact is they are, says Wilson.

"While part of the beef industry has made real progress with data, the fact is beef is behind other industries," she says, "and we have to learn from others. Dairy is a good example of using data to improve animal and industry performance."

It's a new world of partnerships. One of the biggest changes coming as interest in data management grows, is that companies and others in industry are getting on board, says Wilson.

"For BIXS that means building a strong partnership base which will add value to all players."

Building beef sustainability around data. Food industry players are looking for ways to prove sustainability and producers are feeling pressure to meet obligations. Data management can help.

Reprintable with credit. This article is available for reprint, with acknowledgement of the source as Meristem Land and Science, www.meristem.com.

Meristem is a Calgary-based communications firm that specializes in writing about western agriculture, food and land use. More articles at www.meristem.com.




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