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320213

Five animal agriculture entrepreneurs from the Alltech start-up program

Since the launch of the Pearse Lyons Cultivator, 23 young companies have participated and benefited from the guidance.

When Pearse Lyons, the founder of animal nutrition heavyweight Alltech, died in 2018, he left a legacy that continues to pay dividends: the Pearse Lyons Accelerator Program, which has evolved into the Pearse Lyons Cultivator. Now headed by his son, Mark Lyons, president and CEO of Alltech, the cultivator offers the expertise of Alltech scientists and business executives.

Since the program began in 2016, 23 young companies have participated and benefited from the nurturing. Alltech has even partnered with, or purchased, some of the start-ups. Here’s a look at five of the entrepreneurs in animal agriculture who participated in the program.

Swinetech Founder: Matthew Rooda

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Matthew Rooda spent his early years helping manage an Iowa family hog farm where he observed firsthand the longtime farrowing house problem of piglet crushing by the mama sows. That led to development of the biggest solution to the problem since the farrowing crate.

“We call it SmartGuard,” Rooda says. “It merges the human technology of voice recognition with a wearable pad stuck to the sow’s flank. When the SmartGuard controller detects a pig squeal, it sends a signal to the pad, alerting the sow with a small vibration impulse. She shifts her weight, and frees the pig.”

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Rooda went to sow farms at night when the workers were away to record pig squeals, then turned it into an algorithm for the listening device. “A pig being crushed has a distinct squeal,” he says. “We very accurately captured it.”

Tests show SmartGuard can save more than 30% of pigs that might be lost to crushing.

Rooda has also found inspiration for his second technology product, a swine management system that he calls PigFlow, now in development. “We came to realize that a big issue for efficient operation on a livestock farm is the employee response to the tasks that need to be done.”

PigFlow works as an app on a mobile device for swine farm workers and managers, directing them in real time to complete tasks and record progress. “It’s simple, and it ensures implementation of a farm’s standard procedures by all workers,” Rooda says.

For instance, it prompts workers to check on birthing sows every 15 to 30 minutes, thereby saving many of the 9% of piglets that die in stillbirth.

In developing PigFlow, Rooda actually borrowed from his own knowledge of human health care. “In a hospital, nurses have technology that allows them to multitask, so they are always in the right place at the right time,” he says. It works in a farrowing house, too.

PigFlow tracks and updates in real time birthings in progress, medications given, breedings, maintenance issues, and more. “In animal agriculture, we often have hired employees doing the work, not family labor,” Rooda says. “There is high employee turnover. PigFlow technology has to be simple to accommodate that.”

Managers can use it to learn which employees are best at saving pigs or breeding barn success and assign them accordingly.

The Pearse Lyons Cultivator gives Rooda access to business development training and technical help from Alltech experts, with an emphasis on farm efficiency. “It’s about total sustainability: saving feed, saving water, and enhancing food production,” Rooda says.

Visit: swinetechnologies.com

Chordata Founder: John Wisbey

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The idea for this technology product came to CEO John Wisbey from his long involvement in the pet industry. The product, in development for about two years, is a microchip about the size of a long grain of rice that is injected in the neck of an animal. It’s like a chip identification marker put into dogs, except the Chordata chip measures more than ID.

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“It can read health biomarkers in each species,” says Wisbey of Great Britain. “For dairy, we can measure fertility by tracking progesterone for optimal breeding. The chip can also measure the energy status of the animal and alert farmers and veterinarians of nutritional or health issues.”

The chip relays that biodata to a wearable device on the animal, usually an ear tag, that in turn transmits the data to the Chordata cloud platform. From there the data is analyzed and made available daily on a computer or mobile device for managers to take necessary action.

The ear tag can also track animal movement and alert about a lameness issue, Wisbey adds.

The system can automatically and immediately send alerts of the issues detected.

“Our connection to Alltech’s cultivator program is very important,” he says. “They will help us bring the product to market, first to the dairy industry, followed by a version for beef to monitor stress and energy status impacting weight gain.” Farmers will be asked to pay a low upfront cost for the technology with no installation fees, along with a small monthly usage fee for real-time data.

“With Alltech’s help, we’re running a research program to prove the accuracy and reliability of the technology and to ensure we generate information farmers and veterinarians want presented in a useful way,” Wisbey says.

Visit: chordatainsight.com

InTouch Founder: Conan Condon

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When mounted to a feed mixer wagon, InTouch can turn it into a smart wagon. The technology measures everything that goes into and comes out of the wagon to help create a perfect total mixed ration every time. It wirelessly interacts with farm managers and nutritionists to optimize performance of animals by pen or group.

Conan Condon was a key member of the development team that created this first feed wagon monitor in 2008. Each upgrade since then has added new interactive capabilities. Now in its fourth generation, the latest model records more data and sends it wirelessly by Wi-Fi to the InTouch cloud storage, where it can be accessed by farm managers. It even sends alerts to notify of early changes in feeding patterns.

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“Our system makes it easy to provide feed on a consistent basis. You can now do all this through the InTouch Feed Management app on a mobile device,” Condon says.

The feed controller works for all species of livestock. You enter into the controller details of all ration ingredients such as corn silage, protein source, premixes, and others, including their analysis, dry matter, and costs. Weight sensors on the wagon measure each ingredient in exact amounts. The controller even specifies the mixing time for perfect ration consistency.

“Some of our customers have up to 150 pens of cattle, and it manages the feed of each of them separately,” Condon says.

InTouch can provide a seven-day feed consumption average for a pen and send an alert if it falls outside the trend line. “It can give you an early indication of sickness or other nutritional insights,” Condon says.

He says that InTouch, by ensuring a perfect quality batch of feed every time, saves money by reducing days on feed.

Until now, InTouch has been used more on dairy farms than beef operations, but Condon sees that changing. “Beef farms tend to adopt technology faster than dairies. Margins are tighter, and they need technology to succeed,” he says.

Alltech liked the InTouch system so much it acquired the company, opening the product to worldwide markets. “Alltech has been fantastic for us,” Condon says. “They have challenged us to reimagine InTouch, and we’ve come up with a vision we call InTouchGo. It will take information from our controller unit, combine it with production information, and reformulate rations automatically.”

For example, he says, if milk production drops by a liter per cow, InTouchGo will automatically and immediately adjust rations in response. That could take what previously was a two-week process to detect and fix, and shorten it to five minutes.

“I can tell you, full automation technology is coming. My passion is for merging data and technologies. I love watching these things come together,” Condon says.

Visit: alltech.com/intouch

SomaDetect Founder: Bethany Deshpande

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Bethany Deshpande didn’t start out to build a product for farmers. She had no farm background, but her father had invented a light-sensing device she thought had application on a dairy farm to measure milk properties.

“We started knocking on doors and asking farmers what they needed,” she says. “We spent almost three years, from 2016 to 2018, just listening and learning. We introduced ourselves as data science nerds who could use their help.”

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The resulting product is a milk flow-through optical sensor that attaches to a milk line at each station in a milking barn. As the fresh milk passes through the small device, a light shines through it, and the light beams scatter. Different particles cause a different scatter. Using computer technology, SomaDetect has created a predictive model of what is in the milk.

Originally, the idea was to identify somatic cell counts (SCC) only. If the SCC is too high, it indicates contamination, typically a mastitis infection, and the milk can be rejected at market.

SCC was previously measured only in the bulk tank, where the milk from the whole herd is stored. That gives a herd view, but doesn’t indicate which cow, or cows, are causing the issue.

SomaDetect solves that with an immediate reading on each cow, Deshpande explains. “There are no chemicals involved, just the light. It doesn’t alter the milk,” she says.

The SomaDetect sensor also can detect other properties of the milk, such as the milk fat content and protein level. Both of those factor into the price paid for the milk.

The sensor can also read reproductive indicators, such as hormones.

“We can give you a sense of the health status of the animal, the quality of the milk, and the pregnancy status of individual animals,” Deshpande says. “At every milking of every cow, this information goes to our cloud data storage system, where the farmer can log in and see it and manage as needed.”

Deshpande says the SomaDetect system offers a clear return on investment. “We help you manage before the bulk tank,” she says.

The Canadian-based company also does business in the United States and has its eye on the whole world. “We drink milk in almost every country,” she says.

SomaDetect entered the Pearse Lyons Cultivator program in 2019. “It has been incredibly good for us. We have access to their mentors and expertise anywhere, anytime,” Deshpande says. “Before this, I was a climate-change scientist, and I have a deep passion for that. It fits really well with Alltech’s focus on sustainability and their vision, too.”

Visit: somadetect.com

Breedr Founder: Ian Wheal

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Ian Wheal grew up on a family farm in Australia, then got a college degree in computer science. That was a perfect setup for what he’s doing today: Developing a data management technology product, called Breedr, to help farmers manage beef and dairy herds to get the best value on sale day.

“I know firsthand the frustrations farmers face of finding the best markets, navigating the regulations, and tracking the background of their animals and the animals they buy,” Wheal says. “So I want to make it easier to get through these frustrations. Farmers have all this data; I just want to help them get paid for it.”

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Breedr is a computer app for a mobile device that records virtually everything that happens to each animal, Wheal says. It becomes a traceability record that can be used to prove an animal’s added value. It can be integrated with an electronic identification device (such as an ear tag) to easily record processes as they happen. Also, it can predict future weights and values.

“The information, be it the age or weight or medical history, then moves with the animal,” he says. Breedr can bring cattle before Breedr’s database of potential buyers, who will see the verified data and bid with confidence on animals that fit their needs.

The Breedr system offers other marketing tools, including minimum-price Breedr Beef Contracts. Wheal has expanded on that with a financial service called Breedr Impact. This lets farmers extract value from the marketplace before the cattle are even sold.

Wheal explains that raising cattle is about a 20-month process from beginning to sale day. Before now, farmers had no cash flow for that entire time and no way to tap into the cattle’s appreciating value. Breedr Impact releases that capital to producers along their way, Wheal says.

“This is proving to be very popular. Farmers say to us, ‘Wow, how come no one has done this before?’” Wheal is based in Great Britain and has marketed Breedr there and in Ireland. It’s being tested on farms in Australia and the United States and will be available in those areas as soon as late this year.

“There are similar challenges to farmers everywhere,” he says. “In the U.S., we know accreditation and traceability of farming practices is getting so important, especially for export. That’s where Breedr fits. We can really help some niche businesses in the beef market. That’s exciting for us.”

The Pearse Lyons Cultivator has been good for Breedr in learning the U.S. market, Wheal says. “They really understand farmers and the supply chain that will drive our business.” 

Visit: breedr.co

About the Pearse Lyons Cultivator

The Pearse Lyons Accelerator was the brainchild of the late Pearse Lyons, who in 1980 founded Alltech, an animal nutrition company headquartered in Nicholasville, Kentucky. The program has now evolved into the Pearse Lyons Cultivator.

Drawing on Alltech’s unique expertise and presence in more than 120 countries, the cultivator provides pathways for collaboration and the implementation of innovative solutions that support Alltech’s Planet of Plenty initiative. The expanded year-round program enables technology start-ups to establish commercial pilots with Alltech or one of its partner companies. Through the cultivator, Alltech supports entrepreneurship, drives the adoption of innovative solutions, and leads agriculture into the future, according to the company.

“We’ve invested over $1 million into the program since its launch in 2016, but by far the biggest investment is the time and resources of our people and facilities,” says Robert Walker, an Alltech executive who leads the cultivator program. “Mark Lyons, our president and CEO, is personally involved in the program and knows all of these companies.”

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The goal of the cultivator is not to make money for Alltech, Walker emphasizes. “It’s to help our customers find solutions to their problems,” he says. “We want to have our finger on the pulse of cutting-edge technology as it feeds into our customer pipeline. Alltech was once a start-up itself and is still privately owned. We value the spirit of helping others succeed.

“When we rub shoulders with these cultivator participants and feel the passion they have for their businesses, it ignites a passion that we want to enhance in ourselves at Alltech.”

Walker sees two common threads in cultivator businesses. One is that technology is growing to encompass the entire supply chain of agriculture. “That spreads the cost out, so it’s not just the farmer who pays for it. The future is in shared technology up and down the supply chain,” he says.

The second trend he sees is convergence of technologies. “Technology is coming into agriculture from outside sources. For instance, we’re using facial recognition and audio sensors. Health and nutrition technologies are coming together. It’s an exciting time for all of us.”

Walker says the Pearse Lyons Cultivator will continue to add new technology start-ups every year.

Visit pearselyonscultivator.com to learn more about the program.

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