Ed Stronks finally has a computer system that makes everything and everyone in his feedlot work better, and all his employees love it. The system has been such a success, they’ve formed a company and sold it to other feedlot operators.
The computer system wirelessly connects key parts of the feedlot and automatically records ration assembly and delivery and all animals that go through the treatment chute. Touch screen computers in the feed truck and at the chute help staff do their jobs better. Feed and chute side scales are wired directly to computers that are wirelessly linked to office and home computers.
The Picture Butte, Alta., cattle feeder is delighted with the system, which is also linked to his two other locations four and six miles away. Even more important, all his employees love it. It actually helps them do their work.
“It’s a tool that they can use,” says Stronks. “It isn’t an extra thing to do, it’s a tool to make things easier.”
The system started out as an answer to Stronks’ search for a system that would help him improve feedlot management and record keeping. It was frustrating. None of the commercial systems fit his needs. So, he worked with his nutritionist Darryl Gibb and computer expert, Cannon Smith, to develop a system, the trio has now commercialized as Fusion.
“We had the luxury of starting at the bottom, for this business, rather than adapting an older model,” he says. “It helps that we have a partner who really knows both hardware and software and how to link in load cells. And, as a farmer, he understands the work flow. My employees have been key to developing the system. We asked them what they needed and they tested version after version and came back and told us the problems. When they came back smiling we knew we finally had something. They showed us how to ease their day-today struggles.”
The complete feedlot operation, from feed ingredient delivery to cattle entry and treatment is integrated into the computer system. The industrial strength hardware uses heat sinks rather than cooling fans to protect it from dust and it has stood up to the feedlot environment well.
In the feed truck, the touch screen shows the ingredients for the selected ration and if the operator makes an error, it offers to repair the ration by calculating the amounts of each ingredient needed to rebalance the ration. It also tracks the number of animals in a pen, their average weight as well as feeding details such as intake histories, loads, and deliveries. The operator can adjust feed levels based on reading the cattle and the bunks, and the system records the dry matter per head actually delivered along with any notes by the operator.
“It makes a good feed man better, because it gives him a lot more tools to use,” says Stronks. “But, it also helps me make an excellent feed man out of someone who’s never fed before. The system does everything for them. An experienced feed man takes a little longer because he tries to outthink the system, but within a week, he won’t want to give it up. As long as the employees want to do the best job they can, the training is painless for both of us.”
The system can use NRC equations to predict animal growth, making predicted animal weights and costs of gain more accurate. Having a complete history of feed changes and intake easily accessible makes reading bunks easier.
“The system helps the feed man and the owner improve their feed accounting,” says Darryl Gibb, Stronks’ nutritionist. “Tiny improvements can improve efficiency of gains and save thousands of dollars a year. By documenting accuracies, the system provides an incentive for employees to do better work that can lead to more stable feed intake.
Back in the office, Stronks can look over the intake data to check that cattle are eating well. He’s had the best intakes and the least fluctuation in intakes ever since he’s been using the system.
He can combine that information with NRC-based calculations to project kill dates. He can also use his current and projected costs to do mock closeouts every day and consider the impact of any changes.
A touch screen computer at the chute tracks animal movements and treatments. All an employee has to do
is log on to the system as they start the job. The RFID reader, scale and thermometer are all linked to the computer so the information is automatically recorded. The animal’s health history including arrival date, age, sex, vaccinations, treatment cost, and days to slaughter, are displayed. If the animal has been pulled before, the screen shows that and asks for a tentative diagnosis or symptoms.
The penchecker enters a tentative diagnosis and the computer displays the symptoms and protocol for that problem. An experienced hand can override the system, and note the actual treatment, but for a less experienced person, Stronks would lock out the override. In that case, the prescribed treatment is recorded and drug withdrawals are noted so it’s easy to check drug withdrawal dates before shipping.
When Stronks considers shipping a pen of cattle or runs a mock closeout, the system highlights any animal still in a drug withdrawal period. If he were to simply ship them without checking first, the computer system would warn him that a treated animal had been shipped so he could alert the plant.
The computer system helps Stronks’ bottom line. It shows where problems might have happened, where before he wouldn’t have known where to look. Improving the accuracy and efficiency of day-to-day activity means big savings over a year. The system also tracks trigger dates and weights for every pen, another way to refine management.
The system communicates with the CCIA database enabling age verification and automatic entry of cattle movements to and from the feedlot. By recording daily feed and animal health details, the system helps meet requirements of Verifi ed Beef, Canada Gold Beef and other programs that require detailed documentation and animal tracking. It also provides solid information for any food safety program, and in the event of a problem, Stronks can show every activity during an animal’s stay in his lot.
The great thing about this system is that it’s a hands-off data entry system. Everybody in the feedlot does data entry as they do their work, without even realizing it. It saves office staff a huge amount of work but it also makes every employee fully accountable.
Having data on everything from feed intakes to performance and financial information allows Stronks to see what’s been working well for him and helps him know exactly how much he can pay for each type of cattle. He can manage workloads, bill customers showing them meaningful closeouts, ADG and feed conversion information.
Stronks is quick to point out that the system doesn’t take over from the nutritionist or the vet.
“This system helps us work better with them,” says Stronks. “We’ve moved to a higher level of management because our records are better and we know how well we’ve followed their advice. The chute-side system is like having a vet in your tool box — after all, our vet wrote the protocols for us.”
Fusion, improves animal tracking and food safety management and records to such an extent that it has been approved for a grant by the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA) to help cover the cost of the system for new users. It has totally changed the way Stronks and his staff work.
“None of us have to use notebooks that are sometimes hard to keep and harder to read,” he says. “Everybody has a better tool that’s easier to use.”