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Will more cattle data really mean more cash?

Three feedlot operators offer their take on what technology has to offer

Technology has advanced so quickly during the past decade that even young feedlot operators can reminisce about times when a long day’s work at the family feedyard involved boxes of index cards, drawers of file folders and buckets full of chop.

The question of the day for a panel of three producers at the 2017 Western Canadian Feedlot Management School was whether having all of this technology to collect more data really means more cash.

Greg Thompson.
photo: Supplied

Greg Thompson manages M&T Feedlot, a 3,500-head custom finishing lot and the only one of three remaining in close proximity to the former beef packing plant in the industrial area on the western outskirts of Moose Jaw, Sask. His grandfather was one of a group of farmers who set up the feedlot in 1969 as a way to market grain during this period of slow grain movement, and he and a partner went on to purchase it outright three years later. Today, M&T shares feeding, animal health and invoicing data in real time across the miles via ITS Global’s online feedlot management programs with his dad’s feedlot, G. Thompson Livestock, at Iron Springs, Alta.

Bottom line: “More data to me means more knowledge to make better business decisions.”

Pat Kunz.
photo: Supplied

Pat Kunz of Kunz Farms near Beiseker, Alta., is the second generation to farm in Canada with roots going back four more generations in Switzerland where they had a dairy. He, his brother and dad crop 2,000 acres with another 400 acres in hay and pasture, run a 100-head cow herd and a feedlot that has evolved from a backgrounding operation when they started out in 1994 to custom finishing around 1,500 head each winter since 2006. Herdtrax, an online cattle record management program, keeps individual animal information in its place and in perspective, while GrowSafe Beef, a feedlot pen monitoring system keeps real-time track of gains and is proving to have merit for early disease detection.

Bottom line: “Raw data in itself is not very useful at all. It requires context in order to add substance. You have to be able to compare and control how you make use of all data. When you look at it this way, more data definitely does not mean more cash, but better data does.”

Ryan Kasko.
photo: Supplied

Ryan Kasko’s interest in cattle feeding dates back to his youth when his dad, a cattle buyer at heart, started feeding a few cattle. Today, he manages Kasko Cattle, with four family feedlots and cropping operations in the Coaldale-Taber area of southern Alberta. Last fall, he and four shareholders purchased the former Border Line Feeders near Ceylon, Sask., now operating as Ceylon Gap Feeders. Kasko relies on ITS Global’s programs, Linus 7 risk-management tools, his own Athena database for carcass-adjusted performance benchmarking and, this year for the first time, tested a drone for the official audit of silage and cattle inventories.

Bottom line: “In the big picture, data is power. You just have to figure out how to turn it into money.”

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ITS Global

ITS Global’s web-based feedIT feedlot management program builds on the company’s experience with traceability solutions and the former ComputerAid Professional Services’ trusted Daily Gains Pro software first introduced 25 years ago.

Thompson, who uses the core feedIT program and the two optional modules, deliverIT with feedCALL, and animalMANAGEMENT for individual animal data, says the programs are a breeze to learn. ITS people working from the company’s headquarters at Okotoks, Alta., take care of the setup, provide 24/7 support and can remotely take care of any glitches that pop up with minimal disruption to the work in progress.

The feedIT program allows for real-time data collection on daily feeding and animal care activities, automatically allocates costs to the client’s account for efficient invoicing and tracks purchases, cattle arrivals and sales with automatic reporting to the national traceability database. It maintains running cattle, feed and drug inventories and historical data for benchmarking and decision-making.

The deliverIT program with feedCALL can be used from the office and/or feed truck to adjust feed calls and monitor ration mixing and delivery to pens whether it’s one truck at a single feedlot or multiple trucks at multiple locations. The information can be imported into feedIT to analyze intakes on a pen basis and compare ration calls to amounts actually fed out each day.

That’s one of the features Thompson likes best. Before, most drivers never recorded if they went over on ration ingredients when filling the truck. Now, if too much of an ingredient goes into the truck, the program recalculates the ration and shows top-ups for the other ingredients to maintain the balance. Not only does this improve the consistency of the rations, but the monitoring and inventory functions hold feed-truck drivers accountable for what goes into the truck and to the pens, he explains.

From the financial perspective, the cost of overages on feed ingredients can never be recouped when clients pay based on feed-call rations rather than what’s actually fed. A calculator on the ITS website works through scenarios to bring home the message on potential commodity savings when rations are loaded correctly.

M&T’s nutritionist develops the six balanced step-up rations to include wheat and/or barley grain, supplement, hay, wet distillers grains and barley silage. Those are entered ahead of time in the feed schedule and a message on the deliverIT screen alerts the person scoring the bunks and making the feed calls to a ration change scheduled for that day so that pens don’t get left behind, Thompson adds.

Likewise, M&T’s veterinarian lays out the health protocols for induction and treatments of common conditions. Those are entered into the advanced animalMANAGEMENT module and show up on the chute-side computer. Reader bars on the headgate scan the animal’s electronic identification (EID) number to immediately call up the animal’s complete history so that treatments given can be tied to its permanent record. The treatment expenses are automatically charged to the client’s account and the treated animal is automatically flagged in the withdrawal summary reports for each pen.

The reporting function is another highlight of the program because it makes planning so much easier, he says. In a matter of seconds, he can can pull up summaries on withdrawal status, commodity use, pricing and reconciliation, feed invoicing, lot closeouts, or daily feed and health activity reports.

An overarching advantage has been on the labour side.

“These programs have saved me trying to find people with agricultural knowledge. That was tough because guys who grew up on farms have their own farms now or have moved on because of competition for labour from other industries here. This puts my knowledge, my vet’s knowledge and my nutritionist’s knowledge all in one place for everyone to learn from,” Thompson sums up.

For more information visit the ITS Global website or call 1-877-333-7373.

Herdtrax

The Kunz family takes in calves at weaning each October and looks after selling them as they finish out from spring through early summer. All are lower-risk calves because they arrive directly from ranches and the ranchers retain some ownership, making it in their own best interests to have good herd health and vaccination programs.

Kunz says, for sure, being on Herdtrax is a drawing card for the feedlot.

Developed by Dr. Troy Drake, a practicing veterinarian at Kathyrn, Alta., Herdtrax can be customized for commercial cow-calf, seedstock or feedlot needs to include details ranging from birth, genetics, health protocols and treatments, reproduction, growth and feed programs to carcass information for each animal, all tied to the dam’s record.

Their own cow herd and all of their regular clients’ cow herds are enrolled in Herdtrax and he has a separate account for the feedlot operation. Clients transfer calf records from their accounts to the feedlot account giving Kunz a good rundown on the history of each calf. He adds feedlot and carcass information before transferring the files back to clients’ Herdtrax accounts.

“Clients pay $15 per head to get feedlot performance and carcass data giving them a fairly substantial look at what their calves did that year, and how they compared to any other calf in their own herds and all calves in the Herdtrax system in past years,” Kunz explains.

He says Herdtrax stores a lot of data that otherwise couldn’t be easily tracked. All in there are 16 data points for each of their calves that he considers key. The information accumulates on the cow’s record calf after calf and the reports feature graphs that pull it together, showing each cow’s performance relative to others in the herd as a way to rate cow performance. Each cow can also be compared to all cows in the Herdtrax benchmarking system.

There’s nothing really new about the use of technology to collect all sorts of data in grain and livestock operations; the challenge has been packaging it in useful ways, Kunz says. That’s where Herdtrax is a standout in his mind because the database is searchable with reporting features that summarize and present information in ways that producers can use to make management decisions, meet traceability reporting requirements, and easily share with partners and consultants in their networks.

For more information visit the Herdtrax website or call 1-844-321-HERD.

GrowSafe Beef (GSB)

GrowSafe Systems of Airdrie, Alta., installed GSB on a three-year trial basis in all eight pens and the hospital pen at Kunz Farms’ feedlot for the start of the 2016 feeding period.

The GSB units fit over each water bowl to take partial body weights and scan EID numbers whenever animals drink. The system could be set to measure each animal’s water intake as well.

The units will mount over any common style of waterer, but some styles are more conducive than others for having access to fix waterer problems, Kunz says, adding that the cages actually do a good job of protecting the waterers from being damaged by the animals.

Data are transmitted wirelessly to the feedlot’s computer where GrowSafe software calculates each animal’s total weight and gain. The daily reports flag animals whose gains drop off and those that don’t drink as indicators of the onset of disease.

Kunz says GSB has been very useful for keeping close tabs on gains and they always follow through by going out to the pens to decide whether flagged animals need to be treated. Still, it takes knowledge of animal behaviour and an eye for detail to figure out what’s up with the animal, especially if it doesn’t have a fever and nothing in particular seems to be out of the usual.

Based on the first year’s data, Kunz found that more than 50 per cent of the calves they pulled had been flagged by GSB. The number pulled and subsequently recorded as “sick with no fever” was greater than the number pulled for “sick with fever.”

Going through the data with his veterinarian, they saw that the percentage of those sick with no fever was higher than usual, but both the percentage of those sick with fever and the overall death loss were low, suggesting that they were pulling and treating the sick ones earlier.

GSB also forecasts weights and feed intakes for individual animals to suggest marketing dates once the cost of gain would start to exceed the value of gain. These market-ready cattle are automatically marked with spray paint the next time they drink.

Kunz can’t yet say they’ve tested the marketing function because cattle were sold as they neared finished weight and fed cattle prices rebounded last spring. The next two years should tell.

For more information visit the GrowSafe Systems website or call 1-403-912-1879.

Linus 7 Cattle Financial Management System

Linus 7 online risk management tools were developed by cattle feeder John Lawton of Niton Junction, Alta., and tested by feeders in Canada and the U.S. over the years following the 2003 BSE trade crisis that triggered a 70 per cent loss in the value of Canadian cattle within 30 days.

Kasko uses the Linus 7 purchase calculator to identify risks and opportunities associated with various purchasing scenarios, for instance, buying yearlings versus calves, steers versus heifers, now versus later. The calculator pulls in ration cost and total cost of gain from his ITS program and he fills in expected gains and conversion rates to get the break-even sale price. The final calculation uses futures, Canadian dollar and basis values for the expected sale day to project the profit/loss per head and return on investment for each scenario.

Linus 7 also includes a summary report that shows all owned cattle, the month they are to be marketed, projected cash prices and associated contracts or futures positions, along with any feeder purchase contracts to monitor return on investment on an ongoing basis.

For more information visit the Linus7 website or call 1-780-722-5334.

Athena

Having some 350,000 carcass records and 40 to 50 data points on each animal is all fine and dandy, Kasko says, but it’s a lot to go through to try to spot trends such as the effect of health challenges on performance or to determine optimal carcass weights.

The Athena open-source application proved to be just the tool to create a common database for carcass data and feedlot production data collected through his ITS and MedLogic programs. All of the information uploaded to Athena is automatically synched by the animals’ EID numbers.

“It’s one thing to know the cattle gained and converted at certain rates, but in the end we sell carcasses and cattle yield at different rates and there might be discounts or premiums based on quality. If one group gained at 3.2 and another at 3.5, one might have yielded 62 per cent and the other 59 per cent, so which cattle did best? Really, what we are trying to do is carcass-adjusted performance benchmarking,” Kasko explains.

He started work on the database in late 2011 and in January 2014 hired Dr. Steve Hendrick of Coaldale Veterinary Clinic to analyze the data and help refine what needed to go into Athena. Now, he and four other cattle feeders compare all their information as a way to learn from one another’s strengths. “If one is doing a good job with a certain class of cattle, I want to understand how to get to that level, too,” he says.

Drone inventory

Typically, it takes a full day to travel to each feedlot with the accountant to measure silage piles and sample pens by counting and weighing cattle for the official inventory audit. It always runs the risk of injuries to cattle and most accountants aren’t too keen on climbing around on top of silage piles in January to take measurements.

Use of a drone with some measuring by the accountant to establish accuracy cut the trek down to four hours including travel time and the cattle didn’t have to be disturbed other than to weigh some groups because the drone can’t estimate weight — at least not yet — Kasko says.

The drone operator created a three-dimensional model by outlining the edges of each silage pile from the air in combination with the known height. Density (pounds per cubic foot) was then used to determine the total tonnage in the piles. More work needs to be done on calculating silage volume because there were differences between the drone inventory, software inventory, and accountant-measured inventory.

He says double-yes to the use of a drone for the upcoming inventory audit because it was a time and money saver and that means more cash.

The link to feedlot school presentations is on the Saskatchewan Cattle Feeders Association website, www.saskcattle.com, along with seven new videos on data collection, nutrition, feeding, animal health and animal handling. The 2018 Western Canadian Feedlot Management School runs February 6-8 in Regina.

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