Limits? What limits?

Farm Forum

Your cows may be held in by fences, but there are few limits on where you go or what you can do with the herd. Perceived barriers these days are just untested assumptions where imagination and technology are opening new gates.

Granted, the beef community is not flush with cash as it was a couple of years ago, but markets will emerge from these dark days, still rewarding premium quality, efficiently produced beef.

Your limit could be “knowing” what is not so. Folks in harsh environments often resort to operating herds of “tough” cattle that can take whatever nature dishes out – but also maintain a tough profile when chefs try to create a beef dish for consumers.

Arizona rancher Chuck Backus recently won a national award for challenging conventional wisdom and developing a herd in the high desert that can produce mostly Prime grade beef. Heat synchronization, artificial insemination (AI), genomic testing and good records were his main tools. Feed efficiency is the next target to acquire without backing away from quality. Solely solar powered since the 1970s, the ranch is always weighing new technology.

Genetics have become increasingly predictable, especially within breeds that access millions of data points, bolstered by individual genomic tests. The rest of cattle ranching is about to catch up, starting with high-tech breeding systems.

This year Japan-based Fujitsu unveiled its “Connected Cow” system that uses pedometers and transmitters to determine peak heat and project ideal AI time. Success for one-time breeding has increased from 44% to now 90%, the company says.

If you’re into crop farming as well as livestock, you know how global positioning systems (GPS) have increased efficiency in field operations.

Cattle already graze pastures irrigated by sprinklers on biostat switches and “cloud-based systems in the internet of things.” That concept spread from its start in “smart homes” and office buildings to microelectronic machine control all over the world and even into space.

GPS and radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags have paved the way to automatically enhanced beef production. You may reject such high-tech ideas or simply remain on the fence while waiting to see what’s next.

“Next” may be now, considering nose prints have been investigated for ID since 1921. We don’t yet know of commercially available programs, but they’re as unique as fingerprints and machine-learning systems claimed 94% accuracy in 2014. Now they’re learning to include other biometrics like hair whorls further up the muzzle and actual face recognition.

Precision livestock systems that use “conventional” RFID, GPS and transmitters now allow companies to manage cows in rotational grazing cells. They monitor biomass and activate a cake feeder while opening the next gate or advance rolling fences like traveling irrigation pivots.

More than that, they are developing into systems that constantly fine-tune management to optimize health and welfare, pinpointing any problems that require human intervention on location the minute they show up, i.e., “real time.” This technology is available today.

Chitale Dairy in India uses it to manage 200,000 cows on 10,000 family farms, matching cows with sires and the best local forages. More efficient grazing has opened thousands of acres for crop farming.

Applied analysis of “big data” from continuously monitored cows can ratchet tomorrow’s beef herd toward higher efficiency and marbling while documenting environmental and animal welfare gains.

This isn’t a dark future with corporate, robotic cowboys taking over from family ranchers, though we can expect the usual economies of scale. Tech companies will offer these services to small farmers and their producer cooperatives, too.

Beef will probably always cost more that alternative proteins, but it can remain the best value by getting better each day. If you find any of this incredible to the point of skepticism, that’s understandable. It’s more than I expected to find from simple web searches on overcoming limits in producing beef cattle.

Next time in Black Ink Miranda Reiman will look at how to do more with less. Questions? Call 330-465-0820 or e-mail But try a web search first.