USDA NASS state director describes how cattle reports are compiled, createdWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Cheyenne – When a USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) questionnaire shows up in a producer’s mailbox, they have a number of options to complete it. The questionnaire can be answered by mail, through a secure website or over the telephone.
“If they don’t answer in one of those ways, we will track them down and ask them in person. Hopefully, we’re always nice about it,” commented Rhonda Brandt, Wyoming state director of USDA NASS during the 2016 Wyoming Farm Bureau Legislative Meeting on Feb. 25.
After the data is collected, the information is separated from the producer’s name and assigned a nine-digit identification number to reduce chances of information being leaked to the public.
“Wyoming is in the Mountain Region, and our regional office is in Denver, Colo. NASS has an office in every state,” she noted.
Most likely, producers who participate by phone will speak with operators in Cheyenne, and mailed surveys go to a processing center in St. Louis, Mo.
“Any electronic information goes to Kansas City, Mo. That’s our Fort Knox. USDA has big data servers, and every security measure surrounds that data,” she said.
Once the information is collected, analysts all over the country review and compile the data.
“I grew up on a wheat farm near Anton, Colo. I had 20,000 hours on a tractor by the time I was 21,” Brandt remarked, noting that NASS analysts often understand agriculture “We are farm kids who are good at math.”
NASS employees review each individual survey, and then review the summarized data as well to make sure that all of the information makes sense.
“If I get a cattle report and someone said they have 47 bulls and three cows on a cow/calf operation in Wyoming, does that make sense? Most likely not. Maybe somebody put the numbers on the wrong line,” she shared as an example.
Data accuracy begins with producers and the surveys they send in.
“This isn’t some government agency coming up with numbers out of the blue,” she stated.
NASS employees gather information from small farms and ranches, large operations, slaughter facilities and other related entities.
“We talk to the export and import people. We keep track of deaths and all of the pluses and minuses to come to our ending inventory. Then, we ask if it all makes sense,” Brandt noted.
Employees work in a locked room with security guards to monitor people who enter and exit while building the final report. When it is complete, the Secretary of Agriculture, or his designee, is admitted into the room.
“Fifteen minutes before release time, he sits down and signs the report and then we tell him what is in it,” Brandt described.
Reports are released on specified dates, which are recorded on a published calendar for each year.
“We do over 500 reports a year, and we stick to the schedule,” she remarked.
She continued, “What’s the next thing that happens? According to my dad, the cattle prices always go down.”
In reality, this is not always the case. Cattle prices have actually increased by an average of $2.45 per hundredweight in the week after the release of the NASS cattle report release eight out of the last 12 years.
NASS also works with foreign countries, helping them develop similar national programs to keep track of commodity inventories.
“What happens to a country if they don’t know if they have a food supply? If they don’t know if there’s food available, they start fighting,” she noted.
Exports and imports also rely on accurate inventory records so that countries know what kinds of deficits or surpluses they have in their supply.
In the United States, data is compiled on a weighted average, to accurately reflect the differences in large and small operations.
“Seventy-three percent of people that we send forms to respond. By law, we are supposed to get 80 percent. But, to us, it’s not necessarily how many people we hear from but how much of the production we are accounting for. Of that 73 percent, we are probably accounting for at least 97 percent of the cattle in the United States,” she said.
One small producer’s report, multiplied by his acreage, represents about 35 to 50 people whereas larger operations represent two to three farms the same size. The top 10 percent of the largest operations are all contacted for NASS report data.
“Yield and price are always multiplied by acreage. We spend a lot more time trying to get information from the bigger operations,” she explained.
To emphasize the accuracy of cattle reports, Brandt stated that Wyoming had a 2.16 percent error rate in 2014.
“It’s an indication of the variability of the data and how close we were when we went back last year to review slaughter, exports and imports,” she commented.
For comparison, Brandt also mentioned that Montana’s error rate was slightly higher, at 3.59 percent.
“The report is a vote from the producer. If they don’t send it in, they’re letting other people represent them,” she said.