CHEYENNE – Wyoming startup company BeefChain is at the intersection of traditional cattle ranching and the state’s economic diversification efforts.
The company is using blockchain technology – a buzzword during this year’s legislative session – to give producers and consumers the opportunity to track beef products farm to table.
The company, started five months ago, has already tagged roughly 1,500 cattle on five ranches throughout the state using radio frequency ID tags that are now linked to a digital supply-chain ledger.
Founders believe this pilot program could be the beginning of more international trade opportunities for ranchers, and may put Wyoming on the front lines of “ethical agriculture.”
The end goal is to highlight living conditions of livestock, ultimately producing higher-quality meat to sell in foreign markets.
Co-founder Rob Jennings, CEO of Wyoming Certified Beef LLC, said, at the very least, the endeavor will get people talking about Wyoming beef.
“We currently have millions of dollars in agricultural assets tagged in Wyoming,” Jennings said. “We are taking a new, modern technology and using it not to change what the Wyoming rancher does, but to demonstrate what the Wyoming rancher does. We can show the data points – where cattle are fed, where they graze, how they are handled and how they are vaccinated. Blockchain becomes not just a practical tool for increasing sales, but for telling a story of the Wyoming rancher.”
The company is incorporated in Cheyenne, but ranchers throughout the state are taking notice.
Wyoming Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, who sponsored a number of blockchain bills in the Legislature this year, signed on to BeefChain almost immediately, tagging 323 calves from his family-owned Campstool Ranch near Devils Tower in May.
His free-range farming technique, one his family has employed for generations, is pricier than industrial factory farming operations. Although there is a growing market for ethically raised livestock, the challenge lies in guaranteeing the food’s source.
This is where the digital ledger comes into play.
Blockchain is often discussed in conjunction with virtual currencies like bitcoin, but the ledger is also known for its tracking and security properties. It uses decentralized databases to verify digital transactions.
Thomas Haynes, who operates a small ranch in central Wyoming, said he heard about the company during discussions with other producers.
“It is something I continue to seriously think about as the industry changes and there is more focus on quality and animal welfare,” Haynes said. “I am eager, as I know many are in the industry, to see where this goes.”
Last year, 11,400 Wyoming farms generated $1.1 billion in cattle sales, making it the 14th-largest producer in the U.S., despite the state’s small population.
Alongside Jennings, co-founder Tony Rose joined former Morgan Stanley managing director and former president of blockchain startup Symbiont, Caitlin Long, to decide what’s next.
First, they want to demonstrate the technology’s value and see how it can grow in a manageable way. This includes the possibility of changing how ranchers sell beef.
“Producers could essentially tokenize or fractionalize ownership of the herd,” Jennings said. “Once you have recorded the cows into your ledger and verified it, you could sell partial ownership to people; there is a way for the rancher to gain a stronger footing in how his or her operations are financed every year.”
Jennings said the blockchain beef is expected to be exported to Asia by 2019.
“People are hearing about this, and we have interest from around the globe, but ultimately this is about the Wyoming rancher and making his or her story known,” Jennings said.