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Beef production staring at a new revolution in data

Mike McMorris for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 October 2017

I’m sure you have felt it: the strange sense something big just happened. These moments often come out of the blue with no warning … well, it may seem that way, but perhaps you just hadn’t been paying attention.

I recently read an excellent book called Thank You for Being Late by Thomas Friedman, a regular columnist for the New York Times. In his position, Friedman has the opportunity to interview fascinating people, many of them in positions where they must notice what is happening around them to be ready for the changes that are inevitable.

The premise of the book is: Change is not only constant, but key changes are speeding up, following an exponential trajectory. The term “entering the second half of the chess board” is used to describe the time when exponential change begins to be really felt, when things really start to take off.

At times like that, you may think, “What just happened?” – only it didn’t just happen, it had been in the works for years. Good business managers pay attention to these changes so they don’t get caught and, in some cases, can benefit from the changes.

As the CEO of Google Research and Development Lab tells Mr. Friedman, the changes all around us are taking off, growing exponentially, while our ability to absorb and adapt to change is a relatively flat line. Figure 1 shows his assessment of where we are now.

How we adapt with change

The obituaries are an interesting place to look for context. After all, the changes we are seeing all around us did not start overnight. The recent obituary for Harry Huskey (who died at 101) gives some terrific insight. Harry was involved in developing the first-generation programmable computer at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1940s.

This monster was 30 meters long, weighed in at 33 tons and used over 18,000 vacuum tubes. Later, in 1954, Harry worked on the predecessor to today’s laptop, the G-15 processor – which weighed 950 pounds and sold to universities for $50,000. That’s a big change in about 10 years. But things have only sped up since then.

An article in the May 21 New York Times (“Owning Your Future”) shows how rapidly computers are now evolving: The current Intel microprocessor, introduced in 2014, has 37.5 million transistors per square millimeter; by the end of 2017, it will be replaced by one with 100 million transistors per square millimeter.

An impressive evolution, but what does that mean to you? One example of the fundamental change this will enable involves driverless cars.

The brain of a self-driving car, a processor that takes in an amazing amount of data from 360 degrees, currently takes up the trunk of a car. Soon it could be a box under the seat … making self-driving cars that much closer to a reality and eventually, perhaps, the norm.

Any car company not paying attention now may have a very bad moment of realization in the near future, perhaps as they file for bankruptcy.

What does this have to do with your ranch? Agriculture is set to change fundamentally as a result of big data. Computing power will allow the capture, storage, analysis and sharing of vast data on animals, carcasses and products. How does the beef industry stack up compared to its competitors?

Not well. Consumption trends for chicken and beef have been going in opposite directions for 30 years, and the use of data is a contributor to that trend. Data drives information, which drives improvement.

The change in feed efficiency of chickens is absolute proof of that. Even when data is now collected on beef animals and carcasses, it virtually always stays in a computer with no linkage to related data, nor is it made available to researchers and, more urgently, to the farmers that could use it to improve their businesses. And that’s today … what is the beef industry facing tomorrow?

In early May of this year, Meat and Livestock Australia (a producer-owned company) unveiled a 3D printer for “meat” created using liquid offal and secondary cuts. This is the technology that can literally 3D print a fully functional gun made of plastic; it is real.

Why on earth would a beef farmer in Canada care? Simple: Chicken may become the competitor you wish you still had.

Another development receiving lots of funding and press is the creation of “lab” or “clean” meat. This involves the laboratory replication of animal cells (in this case bovine muscle cells) with no animal. To some, it means a more efficient production of food, to others a more humane approach.

The first hamburger made with “clean” meat arrived in 2013 at cost of $330,000 – that’s about $1 million per pound. A San Francisco company can now produce that same meat for about $18,000 per pound. Clearly cost is a challenge, but then the first computer faced the same challenge.

To many farmers, perhaps to you, this is science fiction. Even if this new product was available, you wouldn’t buy it. That may be true, but your business is all about providing what your customer wants … and they may have a new option for their shopping cart sooner rather than later.  end mark

Mike McMorris
  • Mike McMorris

  • General Manager
  • Beef Improvement Opportunities Elora, Ontario
  • Email Mike McMorris

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