It's a typical Friday morning and Tim Vessels is busy on his office phone. Meanwhile, Javier Valenzuela eases his truck out the feed mill loaded with a ration prescribed for a set of pens.

As manager of Quality Beef Producers, Wildorado, TX, Vessels has several pens of fed cattle to market. And, while it's crunch-time inside, it's critical Vessels also knows what's going on around his 30,000-head feedyard.

Making another phone call, he turns to a monitor on his desk and watches a real-time image of Valenzuela's truck inching around a schematic of the feedyard. Approaching a pen, Valenzuela taps the screen on his seat-side computer and two electronic bars appear. The bars represent the amount of feed being dispensed and the distance traveled along the bunkline.

Keeping the bars even, Valenzuela delivers exactly the amount of feed called by the bunk reader earlier that morning. When he finishes, the image of the pen changes color on his and Vessels' schematic. The type and amount of feed dispensed is automatically recorded to the account of the pen owner.

The magic of the pen identification and ration delivery validation is in the wireless Read-N-Feed® bunkreading and feed truck system software developed by Micro Beef Technologies. The patented software is integrated with a global positioning system (GPS) satellite. The bunkreader, feedmill, trucks and office are all connected by a wireless local area network installed by Amarillo, TX-based Micro Beef technicians.

“There's no guessing, no backing up or turning around, no second passes — no feeding too much or too little in the pen,” Valenzuela says. “All I have to do is drive straight.”

Micro Beef has this type of technology at work in 70-some feedyards, as well as other computerized management systems technology in more than 200 large yards.

“Many of these systems can operate as stand-alone systems but feeding companies today are ultimately using them to achieve a fully integrated systems approach,” says Mark Shaw, Micro Beef CEO.

Micro Beef offers a series of fully integrated computerized management systems that apply to the entire beef supply. But their major focus today is in cattle feeding, especially individual animal management and sorting for optimum end-point selection.

Whatever the system or manufacturer, wireless technology systems are helping everybody in the feedyard do a better job. Because on-site managers can deliver a more precise ration with prescribed ingredients, feedyard consultants find it easier to generate performance information.

Lanas Smith of Midwest Feedlot Nutrition, Longmont, CO, agrees that high-tech systems can be a friend to the consultant.

“They're becoming more user friendly in accessing data and delivering useable information,” he says. “From tracking ingredient inventories to sorting cattle, they help us all do a better job.” He's especially impressed that many of the systems use integrated software to link their various components together.

“That's a real key in any of this technology — that different components communicate with each other,” he adds. “It's one of the first things I'd look at if I were considering this technology for my feedyard.” And being able to add to basic components as finances allow and practicalities permit is also important.

Integrated Cattle Management

Another major player in the feedyard technology business is Walco International. Through its technology division, ITA, Walco offers a wide range of software products for feedyards and larger-scale vertically integrated cattle systems.

ITA's feedbunk management system allows customers to set up all of their rations and ration schedules. They can call feedbunks, monitor consumption and download data to most feed-truck scale systems.

Walco has recently linked the feedbunk system to the hospital treatment functions into a system called the Walco Feed Yard Management®(FYM) system.

“Feedyard managers can track all cattle receipts, processing, reimplants, medications and movements of cattle during their stay at the feedyard,” says Chris McClure, Walco's general manager of beef technology, Amarillo, TX.

FYM also allows customers and their consulting veterinarian to perform analysis reports comparing antibiotic efficacy, pulls by days on feed and a detailed breakdown of disease conditions.

“The FYM system allows tracking by lot, pen or on an individual animal basis,” McClure adds. “The system also operates and imports electronic identification numbers from all major EID tag readers and works with most electronic scales.”

Walco-ITA has also developed a state of the art feed additive system that delivers each ingredient weighed in 100ths of a gram.

ITA ties most of its software management systems together with handheld Palm PDA® devices. This allows feed managers to record current head count on pens, hospital animals, animals sold and shipped as well as feed information.

“The Pull Assist feature allows pen riders to carry necessary animal information pen side allowing for more accurate pull decisions,” McClure adds.

The natural progression for a feeder using this type of technology has historically been to begin with a feed or health management system, Shaw says. Many of Micro Beef's customers started with a Micro Weigh System® that precisely weighs and dispenses feed additives — pharmaceutical products, vitamins, minerals and direct-fed microbials — into the feed batching process.

Then, customers typically take advantage of additional feed management systems like the Pro-Control Plus Batching System® and the Read-N-Feed Bunkreading® and wireless GPS Feed Truck System. And for making more-informed treatment decisions, and certifying quality assurance, there's the Drug-Trac Animal Health System®.

“From there, it's a very easy and logical step to seamlessly tie all of these systems together with the ACCESS Feedlot Business System® for information management and managing individual animals with the ACCU-TRAC® ECM System,” Shaw adds.

Internet Links And Weather Stations

Turnkey Computer Systems Inc. has long been the largest provider of computerized accounting systems for feedyards. The Amarillo-based company currently tracks more than 10 million head of cattle/year in 200+ commercial feedyards.

In 1999, Turnkey introduced its Management Analysis System® (MAS), a “data warehouse” that wraps a host of user-defined feed and health management criteria into the overall accounting functions. Turnkey's systems also use wireless technology to transmit feed and medical treatment information into a central database.

The core of Turnkey's feedyard software applications is its Feedyard Management System® (FMS) with multi-user, multi-yard, multi-company capability, says Steve Myers, president of Turnkey. Turnkey has more recently added an individual cattle induction system to its line-up.

“This system captures information from electronic or visual eartags and ties into the cattle receiving module in the Turnkey accounting and FMS functions,” Myers says. “It can be used to sort cattle into lots and pens. Data interchanges with popular electronic eartags, scales and temperature probes.”

Justin Gifford, manager of Champion Feeders in Hereford, TX, a long-time Turnkey accounting client, purchased Turnkey's induction system last year.

“It made sense to stay with Turnkey and have a common database that ties the whole yard together,” he says. “Now, we have the software in place so our sorting can be done chute-side, which is going to be a real benefit.”

Gifford says while it already pays to sort cattle in the feedyard, this technology streamlines the process and helps a feeder get ahead of the curve through individual animal ID.

Turnkey also incorporates a unique Internet interface allowing customers, consultants and/or employees and owners access to predefined feedyard data in a secure environment.

“We are also developing an interface to stand-alone weather stations,” Myers adds. “The information will be piped into the Turnkey Feed Management System® and the MAS system, to assist in making better management decisions.”

No “Fire-Drill” Feel

Vessels says a payoff in the feedyard management technology is, in addition to saving time and money “outside,” what it can do inside the office.

“Before we bought into this system, we had to pour over reams of paper to get any kind of information back to customers, packers and government regulators,” he explains.

Now Vessels and his staff can generate reports literally at the touch of a screen. That information that can be printed, e-mailed or faxed within seconds.

This all means a smoother operating feedyard. To even a casual observer, the look of his feedyard — even on a Friday morning when things are hectic in the office — is more like what you might expect on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

“I can't tell you what a compliment that is,” Vessels says. “And, that's the way we like it around here. The rule here is that we never want that ‘fire drill’ feel to the place.”

This burgeoning management technology is not only good for Quality Beef Producers, it's benefiting the cattle feeding industry as a whole, Vessels believes.

“It helps us all become more efficient and competitive with other proteins,” Vessels explains. “It also helps us open up communication up and down the line — with our customers and with the packers.”

Shaw notes that Micro Beef's team of professionals will sit down with the feedyard owners, management and or consultants and work with them to evaluate and develop a detailed plan of action customized to fit their needs. “We calculate the economic impact of the plan and we can also map out a future systems growth path if they like,” he says.

Feedyard owners agree that when installing new technology in a feedyard that it must be as seamless as possible.

“For us, the upgrades are smooth and the guys I work with know my business as well as I do,” Vessels says. “They offer a great service without the nightmares of getting this system in place, and keep it flowing.”

There's no need to be afraid of this technology either, Vessels adds. “I can't tell you how easy the transition to this technology was — and there's no question it's saving us money.”

For more information, contact: Walco International Inc., P.O. Box 259, Grapevine, TX 76099, 877/289-9252, www.walcoinc.com; Micro Beef Technologies, Ltd., P.O. Box 9262, Amarillo, Texas 79105, 800/858-4330 or 806/372-2369, info@microbeef.com; Turnkey Computer Systems Inc., P.O. Box 51630, Amarillo, Texas 79159-1630, 806/372-1200, info@turnkeynet.com.