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Technology: Start with the Basics

August 5, 2020

Anna-Lisa Laca

Imagine a dairy where cows are managed with the same technology used to spot errors in manufacturing processes. Cameras, computers and algorithms team up to identify issues, such as a deviation in milking prep protocol or feed not being pushed up. The producer receives an alert, reviews the footage and determines next steps.

We’re not far from that reality. Data collection, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are exploding on farms across the U.S. as producers seek new ways to monitor the health of their animals and teams.

When it comes to technology, where does a farmer start? Farmers should start by asking for help, says Brent Raeth, owner of CatchMark IT, an IT firm that specializes in agriculture.

“You need to find a technology professional who you trust,” he says. “I think that’s probably the number one thing in regard to success with any tech solution from just a broad tech program or wanting to take advantage of a digital transformation in your organization.”

While it might seem self-serving for Raeth to recommend an IT professional join your farm’s team of advisors, he shared several stories that point to the importance of having one, including money saved.

“We supported a multi-site farm where the two sites were about three quarters of a mile away. The owner of the dairy had a house near the dairy, a quarter mile away. At the time, to get connectivity to the owner’s house, and to get kind connectivity to the dairy, the dairy manager had reached out to internet service providers on their own. They had connectivity all the places that they needed it: the parlor, office, owner’s house, shop etc. However, they were paying for each piece of that kind of activity as a separate connection,” he explains. “They were paying a few thousand dollars a month for conductivity.”

Raeth’s team spent two days reworking their network to eliminate all one of those individual service costs. The farm’s internet bill went from so their internet service bill in one month, went from $1,500 a month to $200. Additionally, the change allowed them to easily implement robots when the time came.

Prior to us helping, they were getting connectivity in all the places they needed it, but were they losing $1,300 a month in service charges,” he says. “When they went to put in robotic milking several years later they had to rely on local connectivity across all of those sites and the way that it was working before that would not have allowed that to happen.”

You don’t know what you don’t know, he adds.

“Your technology might be working, but is it working as efficiently and effectively from a cost and operations perspective as it could? Probably not. That’s really where the value of an IT professional comes in,” he says. “A lot of times you know IT professionals aren’t going to probably want to spend more money, but the long-term value of where those dollars are spent saves you so much time and effort and money in the future.”

If that technology professional is “worth their salt” Raeth says they’ll likely recommend you start budgeting for technology as a separate line in your business’ budget

“Organizations that are really successful at leveraging technology have a tech budget,” he says. “They know what they’re willing to spend on technology.”

Additionally, it’s critical to have an inventory of the technology you use and rely on, Raeth says.

“Have a tech blueprint,” he says. “Understand how everything interconnects and how it all works together. Oftentimes what you see is, is compartmentalized decision making from non-technical people. A couple of guys go in a room and say we’re going to do X,Y and Z. Not even understanding how that impacts downstream things.”

For example, not understanding that you can’t put in a high definition camera system into a 10-year-old wireless network and expect that it’s going to perform.

“I wouldn’t expect a dairy farmer to grasp technology any better than I can milking a cow,” he says. “Find a professional you trust and let them help you get the nuts and bolts in place to digitize your dairy.”



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