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"FASTCOW" PALM PILOT HELPS WITH HERD MANAGEMENT

by: Heather Smith Thomas

Dan Ellis, Billings, Mont., has come up with a unique and innovative tool for cattle breeders that may revolutionize their ability to utilize their herd records -- especially for stockmen who are not comfortable using a computer. Ellis calls his invention the "FastCow" because anything the rancher wants to look up is right at his fingertips in a pocket-size device that brings up the information instantly -- whether he's out in the corral working cattle, in the pasture or at a bull sale.

Ellis says, "Right now we have based everything on registered Angus cattle, but we will expand to other breeds and commercial cattle programs in the near future. Basically, we take your herd records and load them on a handheld device that can be used in the field as an extension of your management program.

"A lot of people have data on their computers at home, and that's been a help to people for the past ten to 15 years. Ranchers have learned more about their cattle and about their production, records, and the performance of their cattle. We take this a step farther and have all that production data at their fingertips in the field, while they are actually working with the cattle. They can look up any cow they want right there, while they are looking at her."

The device can pull up anything they want to know.

Ellis says, "It's an interactive data base ...a total relational data base. You can move around, looking up cows, pedigrees, EPDs (estimated progeny differences), etc. Pedigrees are very easy to navigate through. You can go as far back in the pedigrees as whatever your association has listed on your cow herd. You can look up all the EPDs on given animals, the carcass ultrasound EPDs, all the progeny records of a cow in your herd ...what calves she's had ...by what sire.

"A lot of people use this while they are breeding cows. They can see what sires have worked well and which ones haven't, while the cow is standing in the chute. The production ratio on all those calves gives you an opportunity to decide whether those cows are doing a good enough job for you or whether you need to make changes or continue with the program you're in.

Ellis is working on upgrade versions of the product that will be available soon. It will have the entire Sire Summary on it as well so a person can look up any bull in the Angus breed.

"It's not a wireless program," he says. "It's a handheld data base. Right now, just with this program, we have the potential of loading data of over 200,000 animals on it. We have some things we're working on, some additional technology and expansion, so at some point within the next several months, we can increase that tenfold. We'd like to be able to put a million animals on it."

Ellis says, "There will be things we can do farther down the road that will allow us to put pictures in certain cow files, especially in the purebred business where pictures and any pertinent data would not be on the association's computer. For example, we could add in sales and progeny sales, flush records, and that kind of thing."

According to Ellis, this concept has basically taken the data that people know they need to use and made it more convenient and accessible to breeders in managing and evaluating their herds.

He says, "People who have the FastCow have been pretty impressed with it. A lot of people had reservations in the beginning, thinking it was just another computer. Some people don't like computers or work with them. But once they try this and understand how easy it is to use, they are happy with it."

"You don't have to know how to run a computer to use the FastCow," Ellis explains. "It recognizes your handwriting, and it's a touch-screen operation You can just tap on a cow on the screen and navigate around to find anything you want to know about her -- calves, sires, EPDs, etc. It's very user-friendly, and even people who are unfamiliar with computers can use it very easily. We've had guys who said they don't even know where the on/ off switch is on a computer and would never use anything like this ...but after they had an opportunity to play with it a couple minutes, they have been really pleased with it.

He adds, "It's been fun to work with. It's a lot handier than carrying around an eight-pound notebook with all your registration papers and cow data that won't fit in your pocket."

Ellis has had a Palm Pilot for a couple of years. The handheld device he's created runs on a Palm product manufactured by 3 COM.

"I've always thought there should be opportunities or ways to use this powerful handheld device in production agriculture," he says. "I started last October with different programs to load cows and got to a point the first of February where we hired a technical group that has done a lot of development. Their forte has been in data compression. We were able to run it ourselves on a few head, but our tech group has been able to cram increasingly larger amounts of data into a smaller space and make it run very fast.

"Most everything you look up on the FastCow when you tap on an item or an individual on the screen... it's almost instantaneous; it's right there. We've been very pleased with the efficiency and the speed it runs at," says Ellis.

The FastCow has only been on the market since July 1.

Ellis says, "As we continue to grow and learn more about the capabilities of the product, we're getting a lot of input from breeders on things they'd like to see and additions they'd like to have for the units they've purchased so it's been a win/win deal. It's something we want to make sure people are actually using. There are features we're working on for future upgrades that we hope will become commonplace in the next couple of years."

The cost of the base unit, with the hardware and software a complete unit -- is $499.

"The high-end unit, which has a larger screen, faster processing speed and a little lighter weight, is $849, and these make up 90 percent of our sales," he says. "The potential for expansion and additional applications on down the road is much greater with the high-end unit ...it's a lot more flexible. But the low-end unit at this point does everything the high-end unit will do. It will just be more limited in the future.

"In the Angus Association, we process data every six months to calculate new EPDs and new performance information. So, if you have a registration paper, the numbers and data all change every six months," he says. "With the FastCow, you can reload all that data whenever you make a change in animals added, or have new breeding or calving information, or when we get new EPD updates from the association...any kind of changes. It takes one button to reload ever thing. Even in very large herds, we can load the entire cowherd and all the pertinent data within three to five minutes with one button. So it's fast and efficient.

Ellis says, "It very accurate and very reliable. We have the same success with the 2,000 cow herd as the 50 cow herd. It makes it easy to learn more about your cows and to have information and data on demand wherever you are. In the pasture, the office, at home, at a show or an auction, on an airplane or wherever, it's right there in your hand, no matter what."

The device is the size of a small calculator and fits in a shirt pocket.

"Most of the units have a rechargeable battery," says Ellis. "There's a charger base that the unit sits in and that is also the device that connects it to your personal computer (PC). As you are charging it, there's a button on the charger base that allows you to synchronize all the data from your PC directly to the handheld unit as the battery is charging.

"The batteries we're using right now will, with normal use last about a week without a recharge. In most situations, with people who use them quite a bit, they last a week," he says.

"It's been a handy marketing tool for people. They might have a group of bulls for sale or semen or a group of embryos or whatever. While they are talking with a prospective customer, they can bring up the data on those bulls or embryos, much like they'd be able to do with a sale catalog. Having all that data right there with you and accurate is a benefit for lots of people."

Ellis was talking with Bob Cook, who is in charge of records and management for the Vermillion Ranch in Billings, Mont. Bob wasn't sure if FastCow was something he'd ever use.

Ellis says, "He felt he knew his cows well enough that he wouldn't need it. So I went over to the sale barn one day and set it up on his computer, which takes about ten minutes to load everything. Now he has trouble keeping it away from everyone else who wants to look things up on it! He's really enjoyed it."

As far as selling the FastCow, Ellis says he could run a lot of advertising, but "it's something that people need to see work, get their hands on and use. That's when they realize it's not just a toy and that it's a very helpful tool."

It's helpful for producers in knowing more about the technical side of beef production in a very simple and user-friendly way.

Ellis says, "We are trying to put some operations together for the commercial breeder and are now working on a commercial version. Maybe, in the next several months, we'll have some prototypes to work with. There are other companies that have software programs, and we're working on alliances with them. We're also in discussions with other breed associations that don't have a PC-based livestock program for their individual breeders. That creates some difficulty for us in how you download the data.

"Right now," he continues, "it's for registered Angus breeders. We're making it work for Angus cows, but we want to expand it to others. We'll continue to take on these challenges. It's been fun solving the challenges we've come up against, and there have been plenty of them! We've been happy with our progress so far, and the people using them have been very happy with the FastCow. We've sold them in several states already, from coast to coast, all over the country."

Some of the new technology available to the cattle industry has been a bit intimidating, especially to many producers who are not comfortable with computer records, but this innovative device seems to be a way to bridge that gap.

Rod Wesselman, Angus representative for the Pacific Northwest, first saw the FastCow in action this summer at the National Junior Angus show where Dan Ellis had a booth.

Wesselman says, "I think the concept is excellent ...being able to take your herd data to the field and add to it out in the field, like when you are calving or weighing calves.

"Ellis has worked with Scot Johnson, who developed our AIMS program from the Angus Association (which Ellis put on his Palm Pilot). I've talked with Scot. He thinks this adaptation of it is great -- to be able to tap into this information wherever you are."

At this point in time, Wesselman is not sure how many breeders will actually use the FastCow.

"That's the big question," he says. "If you've got a lot of cows, it's going to be quite useful, but I don't know what the breaking point will be economically on the number of head, whether a breeder will feel the cost is justified, or how many Palm Pilots you'd buy."

To make it feasible cost-wise, he says you need to use it every day, so the outfit with more cows will probably be more apt to use it. But whether the breaking point is 100 cows or 50 or 500, he is not sure.

He says, "I don't know how many herd managers will use them for taking birth weights, weaning weights, etc., rather than writing it down in a pocket notebook. The big question is whether you can get your crew to use this on a steady basis compared to using traditional record-keeping systems or notebooks. Time will tell."

Wesselman says the battery life seems pretty good and that time will show whether the unit can withstand the dust conditions out in the field.

"It seems to have a lot of memory," he says. "I saw Ellis down-load the Sitz Angus complete cowherd on it ...2,700 animals. The advanced Palms have chips in them like a mini-diskette that you can pull in and out so you can add memory and save it. The fact that you can synch it with your computer and that whatever you put on it out in the field, you can put right into your home computer or laptop (and whatever's on your computer can go into the Palm) is a great feature."

He says the FastCow has a lot of benefits, "Like when you have someone in the vehicle with you, looking at cattle. You can tap in and get all the information you want . . . on any animal they ask about."

It's really handy for taking weaning weights at the scale, rather than using a lap top as some people do.

Wesselman says, "I've heard people talk about being able someday to hook up their Palm Pilot to the adaptor on the electronic scale . . . so you don't even have to punch in the numbers. That's pretty advanced technology! There's no pencil, n writing.

"Folks are also talking about electronic ear tags. It's the same concept. You'll have a scan gun hooked into the Palm Pilot, scan that ear tag, and Boom! You've got the animal and can get all the data on it, or tap in the weight or whatever, and everything is updated. It may become a paperless world."

He feels that even in the commercial cattle industry there will be a tremendous place for this Palm Pilot, for calving records, weaning weights, etc.

Wesselman concludes, "A lot of commercial cattlemen keep extensive records would sure be handy to be able to pull up the data on any cow in the herd and know exactly what she's done all her life."

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