When GrowSafe Systems Ltd. first began studying cattle in 1990, it all started with a team of engineers and computer scientists, working with 386 processors and trying to understand the flood of data coming their way.
But it’s only been in the past six years or so that the Airdrie, Alta.-based company has moved out of the researching phase, with the commercial applications of its data really beginning to take off, says Alison Sunstrum, the company’s CEO.
“We’ve actually been working on this for a long time. We laugh about it being an overnight success because we started out in 1990 looking at animal behaviour, and what we did then compared to what we do now is very different,” she says.
“The reason we are a success now is because advances in computer processing power, advances in Internet accessibility, advances in routers, advances in everything – it’s a convergence … We’ve now been able to do quite a few different things.”
Now, more than 20 years later, GrowSafe has won an award for how it collects and analyzes big data – a technology giving farmers the ability to make better decisions about their cattle.
Netting a 2013 Ingenious Award from the Information Technology Association of Canada, GrowSafe was named the winner for best technological innovation for a small to mid-sized business in the private sector.
What gave it an edge is its GrowSafe Beef technology, a proprietary way of collecting data in the feedlot and providing solutions to cattle raisers, Sunstrum says. About half of its customers are researchers in university agricultural departments, while half are commercial farmers. Within the farming group, there are some large clients, but their smallest customer is a farm with about 200 heads of cattle.
GrowSafe’s solution works by strategically placing biometric sensors in the water troughs and feeding areas of the feedlot. These sensors constantly collect data on the weight of the animals, plus their movements, drinking behaviours, feeding behaviours, temperatures, and all kinds of other data.
Every night, starting at midnight, GrowSafe’s computers begin to analyze the data against 30 different algorithms looking at areas like animal health and industry economics. The data then gets pulled into a report or data visualization so a customer can understand it.
However, where GrowSafe really comes in handy is in spotting any outliers in the data provided, raising flags about whether individual animals are sick or need to be looked at more carefully.
Clues about an animal’s well-being might stem from how often it drinks water, how restless its movements are, or how often it’s eating – all of which is shown in the biometric sensors. The animal’s radio-frequency identification tag will then help GrowSafe employees pinpoint the exact animal, and they can even automatically spray paint the individual animal a bright green so a farmer can take it out of the pen and investigate.
Still, agribusiness isn’t an industry renowned for its technological applications. There are many farmers who still take some convincing about whether an animal is sick, even when data indicates something is off, Sunstrum says.
For example, one of GrowSafe’s customers appeared to have a sick animal, so GrowSafe flagged it, sending multiple messages over the course of a few days. When the customer finally answered, he said the animal didn’t look sick. The customer even sent photos of the cow, showing there didn’t appear to be anything wrong with it. Three days later, the animal died.
There’s a good chance many of GrowSafe’s commercial customers have a similar story, simply because many farmers have been breeding cattle for years and are relying on past experience. It can create something of a clash, considering GrowSafe’s employees are engineers and computer scientists first, and animal experts second. So right now, most of the company’s commercial customers are farmers who are early adopters.
“The issue is that, the majority of people in the agriculture industry, we really are a resistant population. We are resistant to technology,” Sunstrum says. “But if you have really good data, and continuous data, you can sometimes dispel conventional myths. We think we know a lot, but when you start collecting big data, you really start to learn what you don’t know.”
“What we sometimes to say to folks in our industry is that we’ve basically taken cowboy logic – so all those things you think you know, so you know how to look at an animal, you know how to do certain things – we’ve taken your logic, or your knowledge, and we’ve built that into our software.”
However, none of this would have been possible if computing hadn’t developed the way it has, Sunstrum says. By switching to an Intel Core I7 processor, GrowSafe has been able to cut its processing time to three hours, down from six.
Seeing smaller businesses take this technology forward is very rewarding, says Elaine Mah, director for Canada at Intel Corp. While big data has been on the scene for a while now, it’s traditionally been the province of enterprise organizations. Yet GrowSafe, with its 20 employees, is one of a growing number of small businesses that is taking advantage of the data in front of them, she says.
Still, she says she feels there’s still some way to go before big data hits its stride.
“I would say we’re still very much in the learning and growing stage of big data. People are just starting to understand what is the data they hold, and how do I manipulate it to get that intelligence out of it,” Mah says. “Then there will be the interesting process of doing data mashups, and looking at the data in unexpected ways and dimensions that help to drive the next level of insight for an organization.”
For GrowSafe, it took a little more than two decades to be able to use big data to help farmers in practical ways, Sunstrum says.
“We found a place where our thoughts and our imaginations, sort of our vision, suddenly became much more possible,” she says.
“Where we find ourselves today in this technology, we actually can acquire the amount of data we do, analyze the data in real time, and provide a solution back. It’s been a long road.”
However, the company still hopes to be able to do more, aiming to build out its services so it can actually treat sick animals directly in the pen, instead of just flagging the ones that need attention.
And with big data moving forward as quickly as it is today, here’s hoping that this time around, it will take less than another 20 years.