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Fully automated feeding — the rise of the machines

Technology that handles everything from feed formulation to delivering it to cattle is becoming ubiquitous

Ken Van Raay remembers how things used to be at his 30,000-head feedlot. It required a lot more co-ordination, that’s for sure.

In his previous system, Van Raay dealt with his local feed mill on the phone; spent more time on the road; managed pelleting, storage, blending and monitoring micro-ingredient levels in bins; and generally always felt the pinch of the clock. Those days are long gone.

Since 2012, Van Raay has been using UFA’s Microbeef Feedlot Technologies system at his Picture Butte feedlot. The technology originated in Texas — UFA is the sole Canadian distributor — and has slowly been converting feedlot owners throughout Alberta. (There are other systems, but the co-operative doesn’t have a direct competitor in Canada — a company selling similar technology doesn’t have a distributor here while an earlier competitor has been bought out.)

“The best thing is that it’s in one package,” said Van Raay. “Everything is integrated from truck to computer. The seamlessness of the transfer of all the information. There’s no break in the line of communication.”

The technology involves setting up a micro-machine computer on the feedlot, wiring up the entire operation with Wi-Fi to sync all trucks, tablets, and bunk feeders; and the formulating and creation of rations. The computer can separate out items such as individual vitamins, medications and minerals, and feed it to the animal individually as needed. Rations can be changed instantly with a few mouse clicks, providing a feedlot owner with both flexibility and reduced overhead.

The control allows Van Raay to monitor like never before.

“This computer takes the place of what we were doing making supplements now, with much better tracking and much more accurate results,” he said. “Every day it prints out reports and you can reconcile everything.”

Close-up view of the display of the Microbeef Feedlot Technologies system.
photo: UFA

Beyond that, it’s free. Well, sort of.

“If you agree to buy the products from them, they agree to keep the machine and system here, they service it and run it (for free) as long as you keep buying from them,” said Van Raay. “You sign a contract that’s quite intensive and pretty heavy when you print it out, but so far it’s actually worked out good.”

That contract that Van Raay and others have signed ensures they purchase all micro-ingredients (such as vitamins A and E, Rumensin, Tylan, Optaflexx, zinc, salt and others) exclusively from UFA. The machine doesn’t have a value per se, but UFA asks each feedlot operator to place a $150,000 insurance rider on the computer and building. In addition, UFA pays the cost of the housing for the technology and trains feedlot staff to properly operate it. And perhaps most importantly, it monitors the equipment 24-7 and all maintenance is free, including service calls.

“We can assure that the ingredients that you are using to feed to your cattle are being fed correctly and there’s virtually no waste through inefficiencies or the wrong levels,” said Simon Cobban, UFA’s manager of sales and service for the technology and one of five staff in the division (there are also three technicians and an IT specialist).

“You’re basically eliminating human error. This isn’t just feel-good technology — it truly does create higher returns to the feedlot itself.

“You have reduced price on supplementation, you no longer have pelleting, freight, blending or storage. By delivering products at the right level, you’ve reduced waste and mistakes to almost negligible levels.”

Van Raay said the technology has worked well on his operation.

“If my performance is better, I can add level to my margin,” he said. “It’s not that I charge more, but the margins are higher because I am doing such a good job with the technology. That’s a pretty big deal.”

Currently, there are 31 operational Microbeef systems in Alberta and five more in Saskatchewan. Another six will come online in Alberta by April, with 48 to be operational between the two provinces by fall, said Cobban. Three out of four feedlots utilize a brand of micro-machine for their business with his company having more than half of the market share, he said.

While the technology has been available in the U.S. for more than 30 years, UFA only started selling it in 2009.

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