Information-sharing in the beef value chain still in its infancy

Many see the potential but few are seeing the rewards of beef traceability systems

Beef traceability systems have proven their worth during disease outbreaks but the benefits are far less tangible when it comes to meaningful connections between players in the value chain, a panel discussion during the Canadian Beef Industry Conference was told.

“We’ve spent thousands of dollars putting those (Canadian Cattle Identification Agency) tags in ears, and we’re getting nothing in return,” an audience member complained as panelists discussed the potential and the reality of current information-sharing through the value chain.

Why it matters: Telling consumers how food is produced is seen as a way for Canadian farmers to differentiate themselves from lower-cost imports. But unless it’s a vertically-integrated business model, it’s difficult to ensure the message gets passed along.

The comments about CCIA tags came during an afternoon session hosted by the CBIC’s Value Creation and Competitiveness Committee, under the theme “Connecting the Beef Value Chain Through Data.”

Panelists included Mitchell-area corn-fed beef producer Jack Chaffe, Shawville Quebec cow-calf producer Meredith Closs, and Alberta-based value-added specialist for Cargill, Emily Murray.

Closs provided clear evidence of the potential if information can be shared between different levels of the beef value chain . . . not just shared, she stressed, but acted upon. She said her family’s young cattle are sold almost exclusively through the Keady auction in Tara, where the sales manager makes available reliable information about buyers and readily passes on the information provided by the Closs family regarding their management practices.

“I would encourage more auction markets to post buyer information and seller information,” she said.

”Through this data exchange, buyers can soon develop a level of trust that they’ll get top quality if they purchase Closs calves.” And if ever information can be filtered back about how that group of animals performed, “this data would help us improve on our genetics more quickly . . . we could be eliminating a poor sire a lot sooner.” Or they would know more quickly how their vaccination programs and management such as low-stress weaning program are performing.

Chaffe agreed that at this point very little of this sharing takes place – largely because CCIA tags are not being used to their full potential. If he wants information about an animal he has purchased for finishing, old-style branding – if you have a brand catalogue – is far more effective than eartags, he said.

Lack of effective sharing continues on up the value chain to the consumer. Murray said information only becomes data if it’s put to use.

She recalled a pilot project initiated a few years ago by Beef InfoXchange System (BIXS) and the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, with Cargill involvement, but the number of producers who acted on the carcass quality information made available “was miniscule.” She put high hopes, though, on a brand new pilot also involving BIXS and Cargill, called the Canadian Beef Sustainability Acceleration Pilot. The work is currently in the east, she told Farmtario following the panel discussion, and aims to have a record of every movement of cattle that have been raised in keeping with the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. If this can get underway for tracking animal movements, it can be developed into something a lot bigger in the future.

“It’s a similar principle (to the previous BIXS partnership) but we’re starting a little slower,” she said.

Corporate players such as Cargill, however, faced criticism during the discussion, as well as from the speaker who immediately followed the data-sharing panel on the CBIC schedule. One audience member suggested meat packers have been reluctant to get on board with information-sharing initiatives because they view their own data as proprietary.

This view was shared by follow-up speaker Ruairi Hanafin, chief blockchain architect for Prince Edward County-based start-up company Grain Discovery. The company aims to use the same technology originally devised to create the alternative “bitcoin” currency during the 2008 financial meltdown, to provide what Hanafin described as “a tamper-proof book of record or ledger” for agricultural commodities on which “you basically can’t cheat . . . because everybody else in the system can see your transaction.”

Hanafin said the technology’s appeal is that it operates without government oversight or regulation, and without middlemen collecting their share of proceeds between the buyer and the seller.

(Former federal Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief is one of the advisors to the board of directors for Grain Discovery, which is on track to secure a line-up of buyers and sellers for the 2018 harvest.)

Under this environment, though, he suggested large corporate players aren’t always ready to lead the way.

“There are many people who thrive when the market is opaque,” Hanafin noted. You need somebody to kick off this kind of system, and he believes it’s unlikely to be one of the large operators at any step in the value chain. It will more likely, he suggested, be a small operator trying to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

However, Murray countered that companies such as Cargill recognize the value – over and above being paid to provide information – in sharing data across the value chain.

“You know the saying: A rising tide lifts all boats. I think that works here,” she told the panel discussion. Packers, she believes, are more willing now than in the past.

“I don’t see the reluctance that I might have seen a few years ago,” she said.

About the author

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Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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