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K-State Ranching Summit: Embracing disruptive technology

Progressive Cattleman Associate Editor Carrie Veselka Published on 24 October 2018
Tom Field

Technology on the ranch. That’s something we talk about pretty regularly – and with good reason. Like it or not, technology is part of the future, so how can we, as the beef industry, adapt our vision?

That was the big question at the K-State Ranching Summit.

Using technology to capture value

Mark Gardiner spoke to attendees about using technology to maximize profit per cow. His family ranch in Ashland, Kansas, is home to 2,000 commercial cows, 1,500 registered cows and heifers that run on 48,000 acres.

Mark Gardiner

They transitioned to A.I. in 1964 and have built an embryo transfer program that makes over 3,500 transfers a year, making it one of the largest A.I./ET beef operations in the world.

Gardiner says having access to technology is great but does nothing until there is a process in place to maximize its usefulness.

“We’ve got to connect the dots,” he says. “We can have all of these formulas, and they can be awesome, but if you can’t make those things fit together and make it work out in [the field], you cannot convert that cellulose into the greatest-tasting protein in the world.”

His breeding philosophy is “to produce pounds in the right package” through collecting data on their cattle. “I need to know what our cattle can do, and if our cattle aren’t good enough, they need to get better, and how are you going to know if you don’t measure that, if you don’t ever gather that information?” he says. “If we gather that data, we can make change and affect change.”

Adding value through genetics is what his family has focused on for decades. He says it is as simple as finding a bull or set of genetics that works best for your environment and leaving the cattle to replicate those genetics.

“Even in the worst of times, you can do that and add value to your bottom line.” He says success in the beef business comes through those who make an investment and are willing to try new things and are not afraid to fail.

Gardiner says producers can make more money through investing it in themselves, whether they focus on genetics, nutrition or anything else. “If you put more skin in the game, you can leave nothing on the table,” he says. “Critics will say, ‘You can have all the loss too; you can have all the risks; they do die,’ but that’s what we have veterinarians for.”

Disruptive technology

Tom Field is the director of the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program and holder of the Engler Chair in Entrepreneurship at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. His remarks focused on embracing disruptive technology. He said disruption is a part of everyday life, from volatile cattle markets and erratic consumer behavior trends to unpredictable customer service demands.

But just because disruption can have volatile consequences doesn’t mean it is negative. “Disruption opens doors,” he says, outlining five opportunities disruption can offer an enterprising rancher:

  • Utilizing undervalued assets – Something every rancher has done for generations.

  • Opportunity to disrupt the existing model – Example: Calving in February. If your operation could benefit from a change in calving season, consider what adjustments you could make.

  • Re-imagining the model – Example: Uber. “The largest taxi company in the world owns no cars; how cool is that?” he says. He tells producers to apply this kind of re-imagination to ranch management and see what kind of results they get.

  • Exciting technology applied in a new way – He says agriculture, along with hunting, is ranked the lowest technology-using industry in the world. Field says this is a good thing. “This means everybody else’s R&D is paid-for technologies we can now adopt for cents on the dollar with almost no R&D added,” he says.

  • Recurring revenue not dependent on founder’s direct involvement – Field had a special message for upcoming managers. “Anybody under 30, get this in your head: You have to figure out recurrent revenue that doesn’t require your time. That’s the most disruptive model you can adopt.”

Game changers to anticipate in the next 20 years

Field explored a few changes expected to take place in the next 20 years that will affect the way the ag industry does business:

  • Lab-based meat – There has already been a lot of debate on this product, but it is a change likely to grow as time goes on.

  • By 2050, 65 percent of non-commercial vehicles are going to be electrically operated, which will have a serious impact on corn and ethanol markets.

  • An increase of women in the ag industry workforce – “We are no longer going to play with half our talent on the sidelines. We can’t afford it,” he says. “There will be more women CEOs of agricultural companies in the next decade than in all the combined history prior to that, and we will never look back. The world is wide open to them, and as an industry we must embrace it at warp speed.”

  • The Great Transition – The world population is going to continue to grow, and the need and demand for food will continue to grow as well, but in that same timeframe, over 60 percent of America’s farm and ranch land is going to transfer to a new generation. “We are about to go through the biggest real estate exchange since the Louisiana Purchase,” Field says.

  • Industrial Revolution 4.0 – Using online-robotic systems. Field calls it “connecting the dots in a really powerful way.” He says the complexity of these connections is greater than ever before, and producers who can marry technology and tradition will ultimately be the most successful. “Those who will win are those who are able to connect their heads and their hearts.”

Field says making technology work for your operation ultimately depends on your focus. “If you want to get into the world of entrepreneurship, never ever fall in love with the solution. Fall in love with the problem. The problem is where the magic is.

The breakthroughs come from falling over the problem and looking at it a million different ways and being willing to change the solution over and over again until you get it right.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: Tom Field’s remarks focused on asking the right questions to find the out-of-the-box solutions. 

PHOTO 2: Mark Gardiner is also a founding board member and stockholder of U.S. Premium Beef, a fully integrated producer-owned beef packing company. Photos provided by Angela Denton. 

Carrie Veselka
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