GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) _ A high-tech project unveiled by the Montana Stockgrowers Association this week is intended to let ranchers track the quality of their beef from the pasture to the packing plant, giving them new tools to improve their product and target specific markets.

At the heart of the project, dubbed the Montana Beef Network, is a disk-shaped, electronic ear tag equipped with a computer chip.

The tag would stay with an animal throughout its life, for the first time allowing the ranch, feedlot and packing plant to compare notes and breed cattle for niche markets. The tracking will go hand-in-hand with an aggressive quality-control program.

``Our system of cattle production is somewhat segmented,'' said Keith Bales, president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. ``The Montana Beef Network could dramatically change the way Montana ranchers do business.''

Up to 50,000 head of Montana cattle will be tagged this fall with the help of subsidies, including a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Agriculture Department, $70,000 from the Montana Beef Council and $15,000 from the Montana Agriculture Department.

Ranchers who join the voluntary program will pay about $2 a head for the electronic tags. When the subsidies run out, the cost will be closer to $5 a head.

Encoded in each tag is a unique number that can be used to input and retrieve data on the animal.

The rancher enters the first round of statistics. The feedlot enters the next round. Then, at the slaughterhouse, the tag number is transferred to the dolly on which the carcass is hung.

The slaughterhouse inputs the ``hot carcass weight,'' quality grade, yield grade and other data into the computer system, where it is almost immediately available to the rancher.

``(Knowing) how our cattle perform is the ultimate goal of every rancher. Our cattle are our lifeblood and our equity. If we can track their performance, and particularly how they are graded, it allows us to become better producers,'' said Harlem-area rancher and state Rep. Matt McCann.

Most cattle raised in Montana go to feedlots in the Midwest at 8 or 9 months of age. But the rancher now has no way of knowing whether an animal thrived at the feedlot or what its slaughter grades and yields were.

``With the little 500-pound steer calf, when they leave (the rancher knows) what they look like,'' McCann said. ``But they don't have any idea what they finish out to be.''

That makes it tough to market. Unlike the chicken industry, where companies build brand names on uniform quality standards, beef coming into slaughterhouses is inconsistent. Good cattle mingle with the bad.

If packing facilities could single out ranches for specific meat qualities, they could more easily target niche markets such as restaurant-quality beef, Asian markets and extra-lean meat. Ranchers would have more leverage in the market.

The project begins next month with seminars across the state. Producers who opt into the tracking system must meet quality assurance criteria and complete an educational program coordinated by Montana State University.

Montana is joining Iowa as one of the first states to experiment with electronic tracking.

``It's kind of a chicken and the egg thing,'' acknowledged Montana Beef Network coordinator Quinn Holzer. ``There are a lot of unknowns. But our other option is to wait until someone else does it and come along behind.''