We all know that animal production is a complicated business. Each day is filled with thousands of variables that affect production outputs, from feed margins to animal productivity. The sheer amount of data that must be collected, reported and analyzed can be overwhelming. Equipment embedded with chips and sensors that share data over the “Internet of Things” (IoT) is the next phase in agribusiness innovation. The industry could see benefits in several areas, including improvements in the efficiency of real-time data collection, security, analysis and reporting.

We recently talked to two industry experts — J.P. Rhea and Brian Parker —about IoT in the animal feed industry. Rhea is chief executive officer of Rhea Bros. GP, a diversified agribusiness with interests in cattle feeding, forage management, conventional row cropping and organic ingredient sourcing. The family’s farming operation is located in northeastern Nebraska and has been in business since 1872. Rhea left the farm for 10 years, during which time he worked for World Bank as an agribusiness consultant based in Kazakhstan, helping farmers there improve productivity.

Parker is vice president at MetaFarms and leads its market development efforts. The technology company, head quartered in Burnsville, Minn., specializes in web-based technologies for poultry and swine production businesses. “Validating the integrity of a supply chain is very cumbersome today,” Rhea said. “Technology and data tracking systems and the Internet of Things with sensors can provide integrity of data to make sure that we know where stuff comes from.” Optimistic caution Parker and Rhea agree that IoT will improve efficiency and add precision in the feed industry, but Rhea cautioned farmers, processors and suppliers against adopting technology simply for the sake of it. “Something we see a lot of is people taking technology and then trying to find a use for it just because it’s cool,” he said. “It needs to work the other way around.”

Rhea further believes that players in the animal feed sector should first focus on technology that covers the basics of what they do, instead of worrying about complicating things with every invention that comes along. “If you’re not getting the basics done well, all the technology in the world isn’t going to make you a better farmer,” he said. Rhea was quick to add, however, that farmers and other stakeholders have to keep thinking about how important technology is to what they are doing today and recognize that things will change over time.

“A particular type of technology might change because, for instance, other enabling technologies come along. It’s very important that we continually assess the types of technologies that are out there so that we can make sure we’re not over-looking something just because it wasn’t the right thing to do yesterday,” Rhea said. An area where Rhea thinks IoT can be very useful is in collecting, analyzing and sharing information in the animal feed supply chain. He noted that IoT “can give us much more real-time data, and that enables us to make decisions more quickly to improve the integrity and productivity of our systems.”

Myriad benefits
Parker agreed and sees how technology could replace cumbersome paperwork that is prone to errors and bias. In a manual system, a farmer has to record data on paper, take it back to the office and then enter the data into a computer manually. “We now have mobile applications that enable farmers to capture data in the barn without the farmer even being present,” Parker said. “A farmer can instantaneously report mortality to a system for analysis. The feedback is real time, as opposed to waiting for weeks to learn of a health threat to the rest of the herd.”

While the mobile phone is currently a critical component of IoT adoption on the farm, Parker noted that there are concerns about biosecurity because phones that are frequently handled and rarely cleaned can carry diseases. “Farmers have to be careful,” he said. “What we’ve started to see are devices that stay in the barn and never leave.” MetaFarms summarizes data from many users and shares them with each farmer. This way, Parker said, farmers can compare their progress on specific key performance indicators against what’s going on in the rest of the pool. He explained, “It really is a great way to start the conversations amongst the producers themselves, such as asking, ‘Hey, how’s feed conversion? Oh, you’re doing a heck of a lot better than I am. What are you doing differently?’” Providing information in real time is not the only benefit the feed industry can derive from IoT, however; it can also help secure the supply chain. Consumers are more interested than ever in knowing where their food comes from and the journey it takes to reach their table.

Relevancy important
Rhea asks companies and developers that are building hardware and software IoT solutions for agribusiness — and the animal feed industry, in particular — to ensure that the technology is both practical and easy to use.

“As great as the technology may be, if it’s not easy to use for the farmer or the feed processor or whoever is going to use it, then it hasn’t done us any good,” Rhea explained. Parker also believes design is critical in serving farmers and other stakeholders. “Different people at the farm need different types of information, he noted. “Delivering the right information to the right people at the right time is a critical component.” He pointed out that the information an owner wants to see is different from the information that will be relevant to a supervisor of a barn. Such distinctions require giving attention to different users at the design stage.

Data protection
Who owns the data? Is the information secure? These are critical questions that must be addressed when building and deploying an IoT solution. According to Rhea, users have to strike a balance between the need to protect a farm’s privacy and the prevailing need to share data. There are both risks and benefits to sharing data with others. Rhea said, “Data on my farm, by itself, is really only valuable from a production competitive advantage standpoint, but if I combine lots of other people’s data, then it can become very valuable, because we can do things like evaluate what are the best seeds overall and what are the best farming techniques.” He advised farmers, processors and suppliers, when making purchasing decisions, to consider the model each tech company follows. “Companies fall into two different camps: ones that want to own the data, and ones that just want to provide technology to the farmer,” Rhea explained.

MetaFarms treats the data as farmer owned and works with the farmer before sharing individual data with outside sources. “If a farmer wants someone else to access their information, we get full signoff from them,” Parker noted. When asked about the benefits of sharing data, Parker said farmers can gain enormous insights when comparing and benchmarking standardized performance metrics with their peers and industry experts.

A shift is occurring in the industry as farmers look for means of continuous improvement. A key part of this effort is being led by AgGateway, through the ADAPT Framework Initiative. AgGateway is a nonprofit consortium of businesses serving the agriculture industry, with the mission to promote, enable and expand e-business in agriculture. The ADAPT Framework provides a common platform for organizations to exchange information, creating a larger ecosystem that promotes IoT efficiency.

Next steps
So, what steps can those of us in the feed industry take to remain relevant in an IoT world? Rhea believes that being a constant learner is the first step. “The most important thing is for the farmer to be somebody who is willing to soak up as much knowledge as they can about how to improve their production,” he said. He advises farmers to evaluate their existing needs before adopting a new technology and particularly recommends being sure there’s a good economic purpose behind any decision to engage aspects of IoT. Parker added that IoT stakeholders should be smart about the kind of data they collect, analyze and share.

“IoT is an information system, and just like any other … garbage in, garbage out. Consistency and standardization is key
to get the most benefit and insight from your system” he said.

First publish in Feedstuffs.