A new tool of the trade
Traceability leads to whole farm management.
November 13, 2007 By Top Crop Manager
"Now is a great time to be a part of the agri-food industry!" Economists,
professors, visionaries and some of the more forward-thinking individuals involved
in agriculture seem to be reading from the same page these days. A booming bio-energy
sector, emerging industrial uses for crops and an expanding service sector are
among the components that are creating a new foundation on which the agri-food
industry is rebuilding itself. Some insist there will be a three-cornered tug-of-war
developing in the next few years, as demands for food compete with those for
energy and automotive uses. The good news is producers will be the likely beneficiaries.
One of the developing trends within this 'new' agri-economy is a broader, whole
farm approach to on-farm management and traceability. It comes with the prospect
of meeting specific market demands coupled with the potential for expanding
coverage of on-farm analysis tools, and helping to improve the industry as a
whole. Best of all, producers can reap the benefits of this information gather-and-share
Dale Cowan, now general manager of laboratory services with Agri-Food Knowledge
Solutions in Guelph, Ontario, believes the agri-food industry is poised to ascend
to a new level of on-farm management. For years, growers have been told to map
their fields, tabulate their yields and gather information on how they operate
their farms. Whether that led to any form of payback for their efforts was a
point of debate, which created a reluctance for many to join the process.
"You have to have the data, you have to have it in a format that others
can understand and you have to have it transferable, but the value is not in
collecting it," says Cowan, adding that what producers do with that information
to improve their operations is the key to creating value. "If all you really
care about is where the animal or the crops went, then I can see the producer's
point of view that it's paper work and for what reason? But if it starts linking
back to improving the product, improving market access, then there's value."
A bigger toolbox
In joining Agri-Food Knowledge Solutions, Cowan is now part of Beef Improvement
Ontario (BIO), also based in Guelph. The move has opened several doors to creating
stronger value chains and working towards an industry-wide improvement initiative.
"What we're getting at is this whole override of traceability, market
access, value chain management, product differentiation and another component
of emergency management for disease control in livestock," says Cowan.
"That gets cross-linked with premise identification and product identification
and movement recording. So there's this huge over-arcing effort that's underway
and there has to be collaboration between the federal and provincial governments
and producer groups, and it's all just being initiated now."
One of the newer tools in this larger agri-food industry toolbox is DNA scanning
in beef cattle. According to Elaine Graham, general manager of Agri-Food Knowledge
Solutions, there is what is called a University of Guelph gene for tenderness
in meat, referred to as a SNP or single nucleotide polymorphism. It is just
one base pair identified out of 2.7 million base pairs that optimizes meat's
tenderness. Scanning for any particular SNP will allow Agri-Food Knowledge Solutions
to test thousands of animals to determine a specific trait and begin the process
of mapping it in those animals.
"We've always had all those pieces and done all those steps and collected
the information for those things, but for the producer to embrace it and use
it and then be rewarded for it, that's another key component," explains
Part of a larger process
From that point, the whole-farm perspective begins to take shape. Scanning DNA
for specific tenderness traits lends itself to enhancing processor and end user
demands. Producers can work to improve marketability, create a new degree of
consistency which then opens the door on newer, more specific markets, with
a better traceability system in place.
At the other end of the production process, there are still the agronomic issues
that can be monitored. "If you're in livestock, you still grow crops, so
you need to test your soil, you need to have a feed test," says Cowan.
"And if you're into HACCP or a quality assurance on-farm, and linked to
a market access value chain system, you need to test your water and do your
bacterial work. It's this whole on-farm, food safety aspect."
The challenge to the industry is that some producers still view their role
in the agri-food process as ending when the truck carrying the crop or the animals
leaves their driveway. For Cowan and Graham, the on-farm product represents
something in the middle of the process. There is also a loss of some of the
producer's autonomy, where sharing information carries a stigma of losing control.
"In the case of an individual producer implementing small improvements
and reaping the rewards that come as a result, it begs the question, what if
we all worked together and shared that knowledge?" asks Graham. She recognizes
the careful balancing act between sharing information and protecting product
differentiation, yet she insists there is plenty of market demand to go around.
"It doesn't have to be AAA or Prime, it can be lean, it can be organic,
there are a lot of different targets."
At stake is recognizing the value of information technology and its role within
the agri-food sector. "Let's remember, we are in a global market,"
reminds Cowan. "It's all about trade and market access, and we don't want
anything to happen that would cause us to miss a market." -30-