With the technological advancements coming rapidly in agriculture, livestock is an industry ripe for tech startups.
That’s the word from a panel discussion at the recent OnRamp Agriculture Conference, presented in part by the Nebraska Department of Economic Development; The Combine, a statewide initiative supporting high growth entrepreneurs in food and ag; and gener8tor, a startup accelerator and turnkey platform for connecting founders, investors and corporations.
Dane Kuper, co-founder of Performance Livestock Analytics, told conference attendees that there never has been a more exciting time than now for startups. His company, which is part of Zoetis and offers easy-to-use cattle management software, is only 5 years old, so Kuper knows the challenges and the opportunities for startup businesses in the livestock sector.
“It is a super exciting time for anyone entering this space,” Kuper said. “We’re seeing the evolution of sustainability, the carbon footprint and more of the food chain participating in livestock technology, looking at how they can lower the footprint and be more efficient.”
As for startups in the industry, there is no permission needed. “For us, it was about getting on the farm and meeting with people and getting going,” Kuper explained. “Get the product in the hands of livestock producers, and if they love it, they will tell other farmers about it.”
If the farmer doesn’t have a good user experience and the product is not easy to use, it will not take off. “User experience is everything,” he added.
HerdDogg, an animal biometrics and traceability platform, was founded by Melissa Brandao about five years ago, as well. “We are still very much a startup,” she said. “The cool thing about how the industry is evolving and growing today is that startups are more welcome than they used to be. I think there is much more to come in this space, and new startups will be able to focus more narrowly on solving very specific problems, which makes their value even greater.”
When you first start a business, “it’s hard not to want to do just everything,” Brandao said. “But you need to stay focused and be narrow, and the industry will support that more and more.”
That sentiment was echoed by Paul Koffman, global marketing director with Merck Animal Health. “We get opportunities to talk with dozens and dozens of startups every year,” he said. “They need to work on honing in on what is needed and what challenges they want to overcome. Many technologies may be able to provide more value” at varied levels of production, he noted.
“The producer may be buying the technology at the feedlot or cow-calf level, but the product may also provide more value at the processor level,” he said.
Startups also need to look ahead, Koffman said. “They need to start to think about how to get up to scale” in production, and what the user experience will be.
Technology has come along so fast, one wonders what the next decade might look like. “Technology will be the norm,” Koffman said. “Today, we are still in the early-adopter phase. Dairy is leading the way, but it will be the norm in five to 10 years.”
Drivers of new tech in the livestock industry include the demand for labor and consumers requiring more information from producers, and more of a story behind their food, Koffman explained.
Kuper noted that the farmer and livestock producer have been acquiring technology to create more efficiency and be more profitable. But today, the epicenter of this tech boom is the food chain. “What is sustainability within the livestock industry? What is the carbon footprint?” are questions being asked by consumers, Kuper said. Answering those questions with data and being able to validate points behind the data can increase the value of the products that are being raised on farms.
Brandao believes that technology and data collection from individual animals helps automate livestock processes. “We are starting to see real insights into herds” and how things affect stress and livestock behavior, she said.
“As we’re automating more and more, we are not interacting with animals as often,” she explained. “This reduces animal stress. I’m optimistic about automation, like robotic milking in dairy, because it is a less intrusive way and actually improves the overall quality of animal welfare.”