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Feedlot Visionary

Consider the day-to-day realities faced by Ed Greiman. Greiman owns a modest feedlot in the northern-Iowa town of Garner that each year fattens 2,400 cattle for slaughter. In his barn, an eight-year-old Fujitsu laptop shares a wooden shelf with assorted hand tools. Duct tape binds the computer’s cracked case, and plastic welding compound keeps the display from falling off. But the machine flickers to life, and AgInfoLink’s cattle management program, called BeefLink, lights up the screen. The program helps manage the growth and health of individual animals, identified by means of RFID tags on their ears. With the program’s aid, Greiman can do things like provide custom medical treatment and cull poor weight-gainers early.

One late-winter day, Greiman opens a metal gate and wades into a cattle pen to demonstrate the benefits of the technology. In the pen, 80 skittish cattle stomp on cornhusks as they go about their life’s work: munching on a mixture of hay, cow corn, and a high-calorie, high-protein yellow slurry. Greiman corrals a brown-and-white cow through a steel cattle chute then yanks a lever that pins the animal’s neck between two steel bars. Then he waves an RFID tag reader past a quarter-sized white tag on the cow’s ear.

This one is number 1565, and the database tells a story that might otherwise have gone unheard. On November 30, her temperature was a slightly feverish 39.4 C, and she was given some antibiotics. On December 2, it was still 39.4 C, and she got more antibiotics. Still later in the month, the fever persisted. Most troublesome to the bottom line, though, was that the ailing number 1565 was simply not gaining weight. It happens all the time: some animals are better suited for feedlot life than others. Any additional investment-antibiotics, hormones, yellow slurry-won’t produce a higher carcass weight. The ear tag helped Greiman make a clear decision: animal number 1565 would be on the next truck to the packinghouse.

But Ed Greiman is also frustrated by what happens on either end of his process. Fewer than 10 percent of the 990,000 Iowa-raised beef calves supplied to feedlots like Greiman’s each year carry any individual records. That makes it nearly impossible for Greiman to custom-order calves with consistent or predictable genetics. Instead, he must work with whatever walks through his gate. On the outgoing side, the data Greiman dutifully collects dies along with the animals inside a Tama, IA, slaughterhouse. Without a large-scale, integrated network for gathering genetic and disease information on meat throughout the food chain, well-intentioned efforts like Greiman’s are little more than duct tape on a food-safety disaster waiting to happen.

It’s a long way from the realities of Garner, IA, to the high-tech Jusco supermarket in Japan. But today’s meat industry is increasingly global, with shoppers often buying products raised and processed halfway around the world. Those global consumers, in turn, are increasingly concerned about mad-cow disease, bacterial contamination, and other safety and quality issues. In short, consumers want to know where their meat is from, and they want guarantees that it is safe. And the industry faces looming regulatory and market pressures to adopt information technology.

As the information age dawns on U.S. meat producers-whether modest operations like Greiman’s or huge corporations like Swift-the differences between how things are done in Iowa and Tokyo could eventually dissolve. So while high-tech tracking like Jusco’s might seem exotic to U.S. consumers, it may be coming to a supermarket near you. And if it does, a family buying a steak might see a photo of a smiling Ed Greiman, as well as a certificate documenting that its dinner is safe.

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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