Outrunning the Avalanche

By Patti Wilson, Contributing Editor


Those of us past our prime, myself included, sometimes (sometimes aggressively) resist the avalanche of new technology that seems to smother every aspect of life.

Let me explain the situation. The average age of farmers and ranchers in this country is 58 to 60, depending on your source of information. According to Cooper McKim of Wyoming public media, his February 2, 2018, report indicated that 63 percent of ranchers are on the verge of transitioning into retirement. Six percent of ranchers are under the age of 35.

By contrast, those on whom we rely for professional services are far younger. The average age of a large animal veterinarian in the United States is 44 to 47, depending on the source. Bankers carry a big stick, as we all know. They were harder to pin down in terms of age, but most sources leaned toward an average age of 43 to 44, some as low as 36.

Do you see where I’m going?

Many of the important professionals whom cattle producers rely on grew up with cell phones in their hands. They are neither intimidated by nor resentful of new technology, having learned to embrace it from the cradle forward. This demographic will continue to increase at incredible speed.

On the other hand, I prefer a pencil and paper, and I don’t think I’m alone.

This discrepancy is what I discussed with Jessica Grimes, who manages Feedlot Solutions software for ViewTrak Technologies. Her perspective on demographic issues put a whole new spin on why we must keep up with new, cutting-edge developments.

Here’s the overwhelming common sense that came from Grimes; increasingly, when a veterinarian comes to your operation, he or she wants to see your pull and vaccination records. A nutritionist wants to see your detailed feed and intake records, as well. They are accustomed, as Millennials, to viewing an electronic printout or information on their cell phones, provided at the speed of light. To their credit, these detailed records are accurate, fast and, once utilized, an irreplaceable asset to any operation.

Businesses of any size are now tied securely to the need for information-at-a-moment. Establishing an easily accessible database, in the end, will help ensure that you retain a competent veterinarian or nutritionist.

Let’s take this one step further. We all have to go to the bank. I know people who won’t do what their doctor orders, but when a banker gives a directive, it’s time to toe the line. There may be no one more important to impress with your business and technological skills than a banker, and there are plenty of computer programs available to help prepare and analyze your books. Take advantage of them!

Let me clarify another point. I realize that feedlot operations are far more advanced in their use of technology than most commercial cow-calf operations, who are likely to remain small, family-run units with an average of 40 head; it’s the nature of the industry segment. Feeders run a more complex business model.

What’s out there to use?

Grimes lives in the western South Dakota Badlands on a cow-calf operation with her husband, Austin, and children Jace, 9, Owen, 8 and Elsie, 4. Married 14 years, her daily exposure to the family’s herd enables her to relate well to her customers’ needs. She’s employed by ViewTrak Technologies, a Canadian-based software company offering software including Feedlot Solutions, Auction Master for markets, and an additional program for order buyers. They offer, in partnership with AgSights, a cow-calf app that’s compatible with most breed associations, among other software products to complete the agricultural chain.

For the purpose of this article, we will explore Feedlot Solutions as an example of what is available in new technology. The three levels offered under this feedlot software umbrella includes, first, the basic inventory and management program. Next is Cattle Medical System, which involves a chuteside computer as well as an office system. Any Windows-based computer is compatible; it interfaces with all RFID readers and any scale module. The medical records are kept on an individual-animal basis. All health protocol is recorded chuteside and automatically sent to the home computer base in the feedlot office.

Hair, skin scruff and dust in the working area are an ever-present problem for humans and computers alike. Grimes recommends, instead of purchasing a unit specifically made to endure abuse, to just buy an inexpensive laptop to use outside, one that might be considered disposable or easily replaced. It is more efficient than fighting the ever-present dirt.

Also available in ViewTrak’s feedlot-specific software portfolio is Feed Bunk Solutions. It’s a newer addition that enables managers to create load sheets, generating loading sequence of rations and informing feedlot employees where to feed, within minutes daily. It can create customizable graphs showing pen feed intake over a period of time. Feed Bunk can actually read bunks, generating numbers your nutritionist would love to analyze.

There are additional opportunities to interface with programs dealing with hedging, benchmarking and feed scales.

Each of the newer programs may be purchased separately and added to the Feedlot Solutions basic package. Updates and installation of programs can be done remotely, as are many of the programs available through other software dealers.

Who needs this, anyway?

These products are especially good for small to mid-sized producers. Grimes has seen the business grow as these independent cattle feeders recognize the advantage of having records at their fingertips in a matter of moments. She added that she’s had a gradual shift of younger folks working into the industry who are anxious to take advantage of new products.

Beyond the feedlot

BIXS is an example of the limitless opportunities that new technologies offer. Another product within ViewTrak’s umbrella system, BIXS is currently working with McDonald’s Corporation on a tracking system, the Worldwide Sustainable Beef Program. McDonald’s pilot project aims to identify cattle from “birth to burger.” It shows the unfettered horizons of electronics and human imagination. Scary or not, these ideas are the wave of the future and we need to accept their reality.

Grimes’ final thought was a surprise to me. I had leveled a question to her that I thought, later, surely was stupid. It turned out to be her favorite one. Alluding to the aforementioned pencil and paper, I asked, “Why is technology more efficient than previously used record keeping?

“Computers are better than hand-written records,” she answered. “You cannot improve what you don’t measure. Technology provides tools to help produce the best decisions; decisions come from this data.”

Well said. Let the avalanche fall.