In 2008, Cannon Smith had a big decision to make. Like many cattle producers at the time, the lifelong southern Alberta rancher was being rocked by the lingering price effects of BSE. His hog operation was also in jeopardy from free-falling pork prices.
Smith had two choices: either exit livestock production altogether or embrace a lifelong passion for computer programming. One day he asked himself, why not have some of both worlds? While making the painful choice to get out of ranching, he decided to produce software specifically targeted to the cattle industry.
His new app is called Herdly. Available for iOS, Windows and Macintosh platforms, Herdly is — in a nutshell — your entire ranch in your pocket.
Depending on how much information the user wants to record, Herdly can capture virtually every event in an animal’s life on the ranch: birth, movement between pastures, preg tests and much more.
So how does someone who grew up on a family farm near the tiny southwestern Alberta village of Hill Spring (population 200) — about as far as you can get philosophically from big tech centres like California’s Silicon Valley or Microsoft’s Seattle headquarters — become a self-taught app developer?
It all started one Christmas in the mid-’80s when, long before the existence of the internet as we know it, Smith’s dad brought home a then state-of-the-art Apple IIc. Smith, in Grade 6 at the time, was immediately enthralled.
“Someone taught me how I could hit control-c when I was running a program and that would show me the code that was running,” says Smith, who currently lives in the hamlet of Aetna, tucked between Waterton and Cardston, with his wife Nicole.
“I thought that was pretty neat, so what I did was look at the code, find something that made sense to me and make a change in the code. And then I would run the program again and see what it did.
“I enjoyed the creation. I enjoyed the process of making something in my mind appear on the screen.”
After some false starts producing non-agricultural apps, Smith realized his best bet was developing apps for producers by drawing on his own agricultural experience. Smith says that while he doesn’t understand all facets of agriculture, he does understand the day-to-day workings.
“I knew what it was like to fix a frozen waterer on Christmas morning rather than being inside opening presents. I knew where it made sense to save time and I knew an application needed to be something that wasn’t just a data collection tool.
“I understood that apps needed to be integrated with your work or else data entry would just be an extra thing that would have to be done — the last thing on the list.”
Smart phones open opportunities
The fruits of that process eventually came together as Fusion, an integrated feedlot management app that continues to enjoy popularity across Western Canada, parts of the U.S. and down into Australia 15 years after its launch. Although Smith enjoyed developing Fusion, he still longed to develop software aimed at the ranching industry.
“For a long time technology really wasn’t ideal for the ranching industry,” he says. “You’ve got ranchers going to their cattle all over the place and often out of the range of a cell tower. It really didn’t make sense at the time.”
And then technology started to change. Smartphones and tablets made data entry immediate and convenient. Other developments ensured that an app did not have to have constant connection to the internet to be functional.
“It dawned on me that there was way more power on these phones than there used to be and they could do most anything a rancher wanted to do.”
Smith found a partner — Aurélien Hugelé from France — and went to work hand-coding what would become Herdly. This was a two-year process.
“(Aurélien) takes care of all of the iOS development and I take care of all the other development.”
Traceability Herdly’s killer app
Perhaps the “killer app” within Herdly is its integration with Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA) protocols.
“It’s a lot easier for CCIA compliance,” says Smith. “As long as you type in the animal’s RFID number, or better yet scan it so you don’t have to type anything, Herdly automatically sends that information to CCIA.
“It automatically goes back a few hours later and checks to see if there was an error during processing. That all happens in the background and you don’t even have to think about it.”
Smith says Herdly will become particularly useful if animal movement tracking becomes mandatory.
“Right now it’s optional, but if it becomes mandatory there will be a lot of work to do manually because most ranchers move cattle several times throughout the year. It’s as simple as saying, ‘Let me see all the animals that are in field X right now’ and then say ‘I want to move all of those animals to field Y.’ Herdly automatically records all those movements and sends them to CCIA.”
Ranchers do not have to have brand-new, state-of-the-art iPhones to make Herdly work, says Smith.
“Most ranches can get by with any iPhone, even a lower-capacity 16-gigabyte version. The only thing that might make them want to look at investing in a more powerful phone is if they are a really, really large ranch with several thousand cattle and lots of pictures. The data compresses quite well.”
Focus on profitability
Smith had one guiding philosophy behind the development of Herdly: helping ranchers achieve greater profitability in the face of increasing costs. He designed the app to measure profitability rather than more traditional metrics like sales and calf weights.
“If you attend any seminars on ranching today they’re going to say it’s not the dollars you make per year that counts — it’s the profitability,” he says. “Herdly can actually help producers measure profitability instead of total sales.”
Convincing ranchers to adopt tech solutions can be an uphill battle. Although Herdly — which was released to the public in November of last year — has attracted some strong interest in Alberta, Smith says one of his biggest marketing challenges is convincing some ranchers that computer technology has a place in their business practices. And it’s not just the older, typically less tech-savvy ranchers shying away.
“I think my competition isn’t so much other apps; it’s getting ranchers to realize that an app can be helpful to them. Most ranchers I know — especially the smaller ones — don’t want to move away from paper and pen or keeping what they know about their herd in their head.”
Jeff Melchior is a central Alberta-based freelance journalist specializing in agricultural topics.