“Farmers are not yet sufficiently aware of the benefits of digitisation and data sharing”

Interview with Big Dutchman product manager Daniel Proetel
calendar icon 14 August 2018
clock icon 9 minute read

Data as a method of payment for better advice? According to Daniel Proetel, this concept might just be the near future. The Big Dutchman product manager for innovative software solutions provides a fresh perspective on the development of digitization and data exchange in poultry farming because of his experience outside of the agricultural sector.

The interview was conducted by Robert Ten Karte from the Dutch poultry portal pluimveeweb.nl

What do digitization and data have to do with the agricultural sector and housing equipment?

“I was very surprised when Big Dutchman called me a year and a half ago, asking whether I wanted to work for them. I have mainly worked in information technology and telecommunication in the past and much experience in this area, so when Big Dutchman said that they manufacture products from plastic and steel, I wondered why they would need a computer technician like me. At that time, I did not know that animal husbandry, and poultry farming in particular, is so technical and produces so much data. That aroused my interest.

“Many farmers write down information such as feed consumption or the number of veterinarian visits on batch cards and then send these cards as reports to the slaughterhouse. Digitization means that these processes can become much more efficient today. The farm staff simply uses their smartphone to note down the feed consumption. Thanks to immediate data exchange, the farmer can analyse this information in real time on his laptop and not only share it with the slaughterhouse, but also with his veterinarian. The veterinarian thus receives important information regarding medical treatment without actually having to be on the farm.”

So there are still a lot of opportunities for the agricultural sector regarding digitization and data?

“Absolutely! Imagine this: the fill levels of your silos are continually shared with a feed mill. As soon as a fill level reaches a specific minimum, new feed is automatically ordered from the mill. Of course only after you have approved the order, and depending on conditions you have set up beforehand. This not only saves time and efforts, but also optimises the production process.”

“The motive of digitization and industrialisation is no longer the optimisation of processes, but the optimisation of entire value chains.”

Where does the trend of digitization in the agricultural sector come from? Is there a need to go along with the digital development of other sectors?

“That depends on the market. In Germany, for example, which is a mature market with a high standard of living, more and more people care about animal welfare and public health. They want to know exactly where their food comes from. Digitization ensures that food is traceable. In other regions of the world, such as Asia, digitization is mainly used to optimise production.”

But is it not true that digitization is also used to optimise production in Europe?

“Yes, but the reason and the approach are different. In China and the rest of Asia, the main cause is growing prosperity. There is more demand for animal proteins and farmers want to produce as much of it as possible. In Europe, on the other hand, you also need to consider public acceptance and restrictive measures of authorities regarding animal welfare and the environment. So in Europe there is optimization within a specific framework.

“But there is also another aspect of digitization. In Europe, at least, we live in a time where food must be traceable throughout the chain and farmers must take into account the rest of the chain. For this, the various links in the chain must cooperate and exchange data. I am convinced that, at least regarding “Industry 4.0”, the motive of digitization and industrialisation is no longer about optimising processes, but about optimising entire value chains.”

“There is a lot of 'dedigitization' on farms.”

In terms of digitization and data exchange, the agricultural sector has reportedly been lagging behind. What is the situation now, are we catching up?

“I would say that, in general, we have been lagging behind other sectors for about five years now, but that depends very much on where and how you look. When I started to work for Big Dutchman, I discovered that there was a lot of ‘dedigitization’ on farms. For example, all kinds of digital systems collect digital data on the farm computer. And then a farmer uses a pen to add this data to a batch card.

“But then it often gets even worse, because next the farmer faxes the batch card to someone else, who in turn enters the data into the computer again! The important point here: you already have the digital data, so why waste a lot of time instead of simply using this data?”

Why are farmers so careful with sharing their data?

“Because we have not yet been able to convince farmers that their data is safe in the agricultural value chain. I believe that data can contain a lot of secrets, such as company information that farmers do not want to share with others for all sorts of reasons. Nobody wants to share more than is absolutely necessary. Which is a pity, because data can be extremely valuable for the next steps in the value chain. But I also think that many farmers do not dare to look further for fear that their data might be abused.

“Farmers are not yet sufficiently aware of the benefits of digitization and data sharing. We noticed this, for example, in our search for test subjects for our FarmBookpro app, which gives poultry farmers insight into their own data. We wanted to take people with us on our ‘digital journey’ and to develop digital products together with them to optimise their business operations. This was very challenging, because you first have to convince the farmer that it makes sense to share data with other parties in the value chain, and that this yields value for all parties in the chain, especially for the farmer himself.”

How can we convince farmers that sharing data is useful, and reassure them that their data is safe, even with other parties?

“It starts with a certain basic understanding about the necessities, opportunities and possibilities of data exchange. We can develop incredibly impressive and technical solutions nowadays, but if you do not understand why you would need e.g. an app, then you do not know why you should use it or for what purpose.”

"FarmBookpro is an app that provides poultry farmers with a simple way of documenting and analyzing their production."

What is Big Dutchman’s reaction to digitization? You mentioned the FarmBookpro app. Can you tell us more about that?

“FarmBookpro is a new app that provides broiler, duck and turkey farmers with a very simple way of documenting and analysing their production. Temperature, humidity, mortality, feed and water consumption – everything can be recorded. The only thing the farmer needs is his smartphone. Based on the data recorded by the farmer and his staff, FarmBookpro automatically creates batch cards and generates PDF overviews that can be printed out or emailed.

“All data is displayed as graphs on the FarmBookpro website. The farmer can easily compare his current values with breeder recommendations or previous batches. Keeping track of his farm’s production efficiency and all statistical data becomes very simple, including the required documentation. This saves times and allows the farmer to concentrate on what is most important: his birds.

“The equipment in the barn is completely irrelevant. Even if a farmer wants to integrate multiple houses and locations and allow his staff to input data or only give them read access: FarmBookpro connects the necessary information in a sensible way to his benefit. I believe we can say that with FarmBookpro, we have made use of digitization and data exchange in a practical way that truly supports the farmer.”

How have farmers reacted to FarmBookpro?

“One farmer who tested our FarmBookpro app decided that he would give his vet access to his data. The farmer no longer had to fill in batch cards. Moreover, the vet had to visit less often and the visits became much more effective.

“Another FarmBookpro customer showed me his daily key figures and said: ‘I collect all the data from the chicks starting at their birth, I write them down, I grab a cup of coffee and I search for connections between the figures for an hour.’ So I asked him, ‘Why an hour?’ Then I showed him his key figures, but in a graph. And immediately he saw all the connections, which he would otherwise spend an hour on. People are visually oriented, and that is what we are doing: visualising data.

“We know that Dutch farmers are also very enthusiastic about digital options to optimize their production. That is one of the reasons why the Netherlands are such an interesting market for FarmBookpro. One of our next goals for the app is to add more languages to the English and German version we have available now.”

"Data should always be in the hands of the farmer."

What do digitization and data exchange look like in an ideal world?

“I would say that we will have systems in the future where every system communicates and shares data with every other system within the value chain, including that of parties outside the farm, such as slaughterhouses and supermarkets. This way we can see exactly where our food comes from and all systems are optimally attuned to each other.

“But perhaps the most important topic in this context is the control over the data. It should always be in the hands of the farmer. He must understand the advantage of sharing data. For example, he can offer data to the feed supplier. And if he delivers more and more specific data to the feed supplier, he will also receive more data about the feed.”

So data as a kind of payment method?

“That’s how you could see it. But because the original data comes from the farmer, he has the value of the data in his hands. This way he maintains control over what he wants to do with his data and what he gets back in return.”

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