Harnessing critical data in the feed formulation industry in meaningful ways will become increasingly vital, demonstrating how much more connected and convenient the work can — and will — be in the future.
By JOHN FOLEY*
I OFTEN wonder, especially while waiting for an interminably delayed flight, how much more pleasant, productive and just plain easier my life could be if the world of feed formulation could actually become a unified communication platform — available anywhere (like this airport) and at any time (in this case, 11 p.m. and counting).
After all, the guys who invented the internet were a bunch of scientists looking for easier ways to find and share information. If they could pull off that Herculean feat, why can't we find ways to use it for our business? Seriously, we feed formulators are caught up in some crazy data vortex, with information of varying degrees of relevance flying at us incessantly.
Consider, for a moment, the following complex subjects we must navigate every day: ingredient prices, nutrient contents of ingredients, ingredient and nutrient constraints on feed formulas, market demands, manufacturing factors, regulations, customer requirements, the science of nutrition and the availability of opportunity ingredients. All are volatile and ever-changing, seemingly in perpetual motion.
Wouldn't it be nice if someone (anyone) could organize, prioritize and simplify this mess of data, some of which are highly relevant, some not so much? For us to truly know which is which, however, we have to plow through the piles.
The worst part is that sometimes I miss important opportunities that I wish could have been brought to my attention by all of this so-called "smart" technology. I mean, if social media sites are able to ping us at 2 a.m. with a highly relevant factoid, then why on Earth can't we (some of the smartest people on the planet) have the same technology applied to our work?
This is what I wish for (some days more than others):
* Can you stream more smart data my way, please? I am tired of entering it by hand. For example, market forecasts from reputable sources would help with purchasing decisions like allowing me to quickly build scenarios projecting my feed formula costs and the best choices and uses of ingredients over the next several months. Also, let me edit those data rather than hand-enter them.
While we're at it, how about a stream of statistically valid nutrient contents of the feed ingredients that are in my bins right now? You know, the ones in the formulas I'm optimizing right now (not last week.) I'm not talking about data from just one sample; I'm talking about data summarizing multiple analyses so variation is taken into consideration.
* Can someone bring on the "big data?" Today, most feed manufacturers do their own thing when it comes to taking samples from received loads of feed ingredients and sending off those samples for laboratory analyses.
One feed ingredient coming from one processing plant is sampled by multiple feed manufacturers that get roughly the same nutrient analysis returned from the lab: crude protein, crude fat, neutral detergent fiber, acid detergent fiber, ash, moisture and some measure of non-fiber carbohydrate or starch. It's all too rare of an occurrence that the analysis entered into the formulation system is statistically valid — in other words, based on enough samples to know, with confidence, the nutrient content.
Yet, there isn't any competitive advantage in those basic lab-determined nutrient analyses. Feed manufacturers could share sampling, costs of analysis and statistically valid data. Call this a consortium, if you wish, but it is also an environmentally friendly way to get better data for everyone without sacrificing one ounce of competitive advantage.
What's done with the basic nutrient data is a whole different issue, right? Maybe your equation for calculating energy from those basis analyses is better than anyone else's, and maybe you calculate many nutrients from those precious few in a way that has some competitive advantage.
* Please make it mobile. Give me more data, more functionality and more access to formulation-related data on my smartphone and tablet. Let me see what my coworkers are looking at in the office when I'm boarding a plane to who-knows-where. I understand the limitations of screen real estate for formulation data, but there are ways to provide me with just what I need, when I need it.
* Why not stream the latest science? New information and knowledge accumulate so rapidly that it's impossible to keep up with it. Help me match up the specs on my feed formulation templates with the latest research on animal nutrient requirements and performance. Once again, I don't want to search for or hand-enter data. I want a stream of reputable data that provide a base I can tweak to fit my needs.
As you read my wish list, you may have noticed some features that are available to you in one form or another today, but I hope you also caught a glimpse of how much more connected and convenient each of these areas can — and will — become in the future.
Harnessing the seemingly perpetual motion of critical data in our industry in meaningful ways will become increasingly vital as we face the challenges of new regulations, environmental and animal stewardship and transparency surrounding issues of importance to a "foodie" world.
Hopefully, when our technology catches up with our knowledge, those flight delays won't be so painful.
*Dr. John Foley is the formulation portfolio manager for Feed Management Systems Inc., focused on feed formulation, ration formulation and related software solutions that enhance ingredient evaluation (including nutrient measurement) and the flow of essential nutrition and pricing data in the animal nutrition industries. Foley can be reached at [email protected]