*Pete Schmidt is the agriculture business unit leader at iRely LLC (www.irely.com). He is an innovative information technology professional with more than 22 years of experience.
THE agriculture industry isn't generally perceived as a profession that's quick to adopt new information technology, yet agribusiness has, in fact, driven technological innovation for centuries.
The feed and grain industry, in particular, has long been a trade of innovation as farmers and their associations have turned to a variety of different scientific disciplines to improve crop yields.
Now, the information age is finally catching up with the feed and grain industry.
Increasingly, technological innovation doesn't mean new machines to improve production and distribution but advanced software that better manages and tracks those machines and their products. These solutions are automating once mundane, time-consuming tasks, allowing key personnel to concentrate on other aspects of their businesses.
So, what makes these technologies significantly better than past methods? In short, it's all about access and tracking.
With broadband providers finally building out their infrastructure to include underserved rural areas, co-ops, elevators and other farming operations have greater access to high-speed internet.
For example, the Federal Communications Commission just announced another $300 million in broadband funding to extend access into America's rural communities.
Also, bottom-line concerns aren't the only things driving feed producers to better software. Stricter federal regulations and an overall push for greater efficiency are also leading companies to constantly improve feed production and distribution.
That's where technology is changing the industry. Today's agribusiness software is a highly tailored product that can effectively mimic a production system, allowing it to follow products or ingredients through every step of an operation.
For example, say a feed company wants to track the quality of a particular product through every step of production. Tracking that information via a spreadsheet is a workflow nightmare.
Through the use of software, however, when a shipment of ingredients is delivered, that batch is assigned a lot number via radio frequency identification. All the basic information of that lot (size, weight, quality, etc.) is captured, along with the lot number.
Which attributes are recorded can be inputted and edited at any time by the user. Labels can be printed to note these data, and the lot can be assigned to a storage area. When those ingredients are then pulled from storage and mixed in the plant, the tracking software has the ability to note from which lots the ingredients came.
The combined feed mixture then gets a separate lot number of its own. When bagged for shipping, one can choose to assign another new lot number or continue using the mixed number.
The point is that every step of the process is now embedded in the system and can be searched at any time.
This becomes essential when customers ask exactly what the ingredients of a particular product are; it's even more important should there be a problem with a lot. In that case, the producer would be able to trace the problem all the way back to a specific ingredient and provider, helping eliminate the damaged feed while not wasting unaffected product due to uncertainty.
This type of meticulous tracking is becoming more and more common in the industry. For example, Tri-County Feed Services Inc. in Michigan was recently one of those companies in search of a better solution.
After years of tracking business processes through basic software such as Excel and Quickbooks, general manager John Dahl needed a more efficient way to run his growing business. He was understandably cautious when confronted with the initial cost of implementing a software solution of this size and magnitude, but after learning of the cost and time benefits, management was in agreement that the upgrade was necessary.
Today, Tri-County Feed is running more efficiently than ever, according to Dahl. Inventory and price changes that used to take hours can now automatically be edited with one click. Stricter Food & Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture tracking regulations are no longer a concern because every lot can be traced to its original source. Even simple business processes like accounting and payroll are automated, leaving employees free to help elsewhere.
Tri County's revenues increased 72% after just one year of implementing a complete feed and grain software solution. Year to date, Tri County has seen a 240% revenue bump.
More and more feed operations are recognizing that technology upgrades in the software realm can be just as beneficial as formulaic or mechanical improvements.
In order to grow and thrive, companies need to find ways to do more with less. Smart software solutions offer that opportunity.
The industry overall is just about at the tipping point; early adopters that invest in the development, implementation and training costs of better software will have an inherent industry advantage for many years to come.