Last year’s drought in the heartland has put many farmers between a rock and a hard place. The price of corn and soybeans, the principal feedstock for dairy cows, has escalated to such an extent that many famers can’t afford to buy enough to feed their herds, forcing them to start selling off their cows. And because so many are in the same position, the market has become glutted, dropping the price of cows to a point too low to support. Farmers interviewed by Bloomberg last August, report an approximate loss of $600-$700 per cow. For some farmers, this has been the death knell for their operation. And for those still hanging on, that possibility looms large. It’s a serious crisis with a large ripple effect.
Gee, Your Hands Are Cold!
Farmers are turning to technology to bounce back, becoming part agri-tech geek, part mad-scientist, to create hybrid operations that are part organic and hands-on, part industrial and robot-supported. In fact, the cream you had in your coffee today may have been produced with the assistance of robots that can milk, feed and clean up after cows. (Source: http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-10-18/big-dairy-enters-the-era-of-big-data#r=lr-fs)
Although heartland farms are a long ways away from Silicon Valley, they are using technology in ever-more ingenious ways to manage day-to-day chores and collect data critical to operating more efficiently and effectively. Products like Dairy Quality’s “Milk Guardian”, is so sleek it could be mistaken for an iPhone upgrade. The device, a small black box, straps onto the back of an iPhone, and can give a farmer readings from milk samples in as little as six seconds, as opposed to the week or more typical when sending results to a lab. The Milk Guardian accessory and app cost $1,800.
A robotic “milker”, such as Lely’s Astronaut A4, which can run around $200,000, not only milks cows, it also tracks their weight, milk production, the time required to milk, the amount of feed the cow eats (during milking), even how long each cow chews its cud.
If the Jetson’s and The Flintstones Bought a Farm
To appeal to market demands for organic produce and meat products (the U.S. organic industry, one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation, hit $31.5 billion in sales in 2011), some farmers are utilizing a mix-and-match strategy to remain viable, by providing both artisanal and industrial food products. The farmer/stock market analyst hybrid, believes in a diverse agricultural portfolio: producing organic foodstuffs for niche markets (selling directly to chefs and specialty food purveyors) and contracting to produce genetically modified crops for big-agribusiness.
As the demand for organic foodstuffs increases, so must the demand for organic feed for the animals that will produce it. Organic corn for feedstock can sell for twice what commodity corn yields, prompting farmers to delve into this boom market. And in a biblical twist, some farmers are going back to the future, by using “insect-eating wasps” to combat crop invaders. The wasps cost 90% less than chemicals to use, another boost to the bottom line. Buddying up is another way farmers are making the most of their inventory. By joining meat cooperatives, such as U.S. Premium Beef that sell to customers willing to pay more for traceable meat goods some farmers have been able to sell their beef for three times what they would get otherwise.
The Doctor is In
In an anthropomorphic turn, some farmers are bringing animal psychologists in to provide adjustment services to their new cattle. One farm has had a psychologist design an orientation program for new cows, helping them adjust to a new environment and new expectations. The premise is that, as with other mammals, there is a correlation between stress and impaired immune systems, so by reducing stress for incoming cows, you make them less prone to illness and, consequently, less dependent on antibiotic drugs. So far, the experiment seems to be working, with farmers reporting a 50% reduction in drug costs.
If we follow the rules of arithmetic, the more cows a farmer can support, the better his/her profits will be, and the better his/her chances of staying in business. And as the price of corn and soybeans shows no sign of reversing, dairy farmers are scratching the dirt and the data to find ways to be more efficient and save on costs. And, hopefully, to keep the milk we drink a domestic product, for this generation and those to come.
This type of preventative manintenance that can be incorprated in the farming industry can be applied to all industries given the right software. As business begin to realize this I believe we will start to see a much bigger role that EAM plays in the go to software for many different businesses.