Michigan cattle producers’ perceptions of traceability technology

Beef cattle and dairy producers across Michigan weigh in on implementing traceability technology in their operations.

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Traceability technology plays a role in international trade and domestic interstate commerce by mitigating the extent of trade embargoes due to animal disease outbreaks, restricted substances, or food safety events, as well as supporting new market opportunities by meeting import requirements. Michigan is the only state that has a mandatory radio frequency identification (RFID) requirement for cattle producers, but the information collected from this system is currently only used for disease traceback and not to market value-added beef products. Michigan is also unique given the intersection of the beef and dairy industries; male (and some female) offspring from dairy cows, as well as cull cows are significant contributors to the beef supply. By not fully using disease traceback information, Michigan’s nearly 12,000 cattle operations are losing opportunities to add value to their farms.

The U.S. cattle industry continues to be one of the world’s premier sources of beef for domestic and international markets. However, the U.S. has yet to adopt a national cattle traceability system. As a result, cattle producers now lag behind global market standards and are losing market share to their international competitors.

Global standards to gain market access in the beef products industry have evolved at a rapid pace to protect the health of consumers and promote export market expansion. Currently, six of the eight top beef exporting countries – Brazil, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, Canada and Uruguay have national beef traceability requirements, while only two, the U.S. and India, do not. Therefore, U.S. cattle producers are in a potentially compromising position by slowly adopting animal identification and traceability technology. This has garnered the attention of the USDA, National Cattleman’s Beef Association and other stakeholder organizations. As the agrifood chain has progressively become more industrialized, consumer skepticism toward the quality and safety of their food has increased. By reducing the inefficient flow of information in the beef and dairy industries, newly formed trust from consumers can drive brand/product loyalty and even develop new market relationships. As of October 2023, net exports of milk-equivalent milkfat products were 801 million pounds (about 363,327,489 kg), while beef exports were 242 million pounds (about 109,769,354 kg) with a total value of beef exports through October 2023 topping $7.8 billion dollars (about $25 per person in the U.S.). Even with these industry strides, there is still resistance from U.S. operators to adopt product traceability.

To investigate this topic further, a team of Michigan State University researchers and MSU Extension educators surveyed Michigan beef and dairy cattle producers to better understand their views on cattle traceability, and barriers and incentives to adopt voluntary traceability programs. The survey, conducted in 2022, explored how Michigan cattle producers view cattle traceability. The goal of the survey was to determine producer perceptions of traceability technology, as well as barriers and incentives to adoption. This survey was sent out to cattle producers across the state both online and in paper mail. Of the producer surveys sent out, we received 690 responses with 508 being complete responses. Producers ranged in cattle herd size, years in the industry, current traceability technology use and a variety of other demographics.

Out of 508 complete responses, 406 were solely beef cattle operations, 49 were solely dairy operations and 53 had both beef and dairy cattle. Respondents who identified as solely dairy operators had an average cow herd of 588, while beef operators had an average cow herd of 44. Respondents who identified as having both had 306 dairy and 118 beef cows on average in their operations. Interestingly, most farms reported selling some finished cattle, ranging from just a few sales to over 1,500 sales of finished animals per year.

Nearly 90% of the respondents were primary operators and had the most significant influence on the farm’s day-to-day decisions. On average, the farm had been a cattle operation for nearly 31 years with the current operator having 17 years of experience raising cattle. Respondents reported about 75% of their income comes from the combined sales from beef and/or dairy enterprises. Nearly 40% of the operators had at least a bachelor's degree.

Most respondents (97%) reported using RFID cattle disease traceability systems, which are required by the state of Michigan, and visual ear tags.

Perceptions of traceability

The cattle producers surveyed viewed traceability as important when marketing beef both domestically and internationally – nearly 70% of respondents indicated that it was important or very important when marketing beef domestically and 77% internationally. Although viewed as important for marketing, few producers indicated a willingness to participate in a voluntary traceability system. When asked if the respondents would participate themselves in a voluntary cattle traceability system beyond Michigan requirements, 23% responded between very likely and neutral. Furthermore, only 11% believed other cattle producers were likely (very likely to neutral) to participate in a voluntary cattle traceability system beyond the current Michigan RFID requirements.

Incentives and barriers

Respondents were asked to rate what possible incentives and barriers could arise from participating in voluntary cattle traceability systems from 1 (very unlikely) to 5 (very likely). For incentives, receiving a higher price premium for cattle (74%), increasing demand for Michigan beef (66%) and maintaining market access during foreign animal disease outbreaks (59%) were the top categories that scored at least a 4 (likely to incentivize participation). For barriers, high startup costs (66%), the likely price premium would not justify costs (62%) and increased time or labor needed to participate (57%) were the top categories that scored at least a 4 (likely a barrier to participation).

Who should help implement voluntary traceability programs?

Respondents were asked to rate the influence various stakeholder groups have on implementing voluntary traceability systems. Overall, cattle producers believe the USDA has the greatest influence on the implementation of voluntary traceability technology for beef and dairy operations with 68% indicating high or very high influence. Respondents also indicated beef processors (58%), consumers (54%), national producers/agricultural organizations (53%) and feedlot producers (46%) have very high or high influence in implementing a voluntary cattle traceability system. Other groups viewed as having some, but not as much influence were dairy producers, cow-calf producers, retailers, food service, the general public, academic researchers and Extension specialists, as well as nongovernmental organizations (NGO).

Access to information

The survey also included a question asking which types of information should be shared in a voluntary traceability program and who should have access to the information. The potential groups included: cattle producers, packers/processors, wholesalers, consumers, the USDA, and no one. Eleven types of information that could be accessible in the voluntary traceability system were queried ranging from cattle origin (farm specific) to production practices to price information. Respondents indicated that cattle producers should have the most access to traceability information across the value chain. Carcass quality and yield information (75%), animal health practices (74%) and price information (73%) were the three priority areas cattle producers should have access to. The respondents were mixed regarding which information the USDA should have access to even though they indicated the USDA has the greatest influence on implementing voluntary traceability systems; under half of respondents stated the USDA should have access to premise ID of each farm the cattle has been (46%), which packer/processor handled the product (43%) or cattle origin (36%). Respondents thought consumers should have limited access to information from live animal production phases; however, nearly 50% believed consumers should have access to information about marketing claims (value-added program) and which packer/processor handled the product.

To maintain its place as a top provider of beef products to international markets, it is important that the U.S. cattle industry take steps to implement a coordinated traceability system. Our team believes Michigan could serve as a model for the U.S. beef industry. Overall, we found that while producers believe traceability is important for domestic and international market access, few stated they were willing to participate in a voluntary traceability system. Concerns centered around high costs including start up and labor costs. Producers also thought that the USDA and beef packers had the most influence on traceability program implementation. The findings of this project can aid in discussions about state and federal cattle traceability policies as well as market-based solutions.

This project was funded by the Michigan Alliance for Animal Agriculture (AA- 21- 157).

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