FLOYD — Dustin Balsley is among the many millennials who have proved they can work from anywhere.
As a web-commuter, Balsley worked for West Coast technology firms. This allowed him to remain loyal to his first employer: his father, Brad, owner of Balsley Farm in Floyd.
Fellow Osage High School graduate Dane Kuper followed a similar path. He too worked remotely in technology development while managing his own Northeast Iowa beef production operation.
As a result, Kuper and Balsley were geographically positioned to take part in an agri-technology revolution. Together, they founded Performance Livestock Analytics. The company provides precision, cloud-based livestock operations management tools to owner-operator beef producers.
PLA’s flagship product is Performance Beef, a real-time analytics mobile application for agricultural managers.
“The average U.S. cattle operation is about 1,200 head,” explained Balsley, COO. “You have to make a certain amount off your livestock, and it’s close every year for the smaller operations. We want to improve those odds.”
They founded the company in 2015, which proved a volatile and vulnerable time for cattle producers. Prices trended up across most categories for much of 2014 and ended on a high. All industry sectors posted mostly record profits, according to Beef magazine, and analysts cautiously predicted more of the same for 2015. This was based largely on past performance and estimated data.
U.S. beef cattle prices experienced the largest one-year drop on record throughout 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Iowa was among the top five states for large capacity feedlots, according to Beef USA statistics. Many family operations shuttered due to losses — a staggering blow to an industry that judges success by close margins.
It could have made the sons of family farmers shy from agriculture. Armed with degrees from Luther College and Iowa State University, respectively, Balsley and Kuper had a firm footing in the technology sector.
Instead, they surveyed the beef production industry and decided to be part of a “pivot,” said Balsley.
“We live in a society that cares about what it eats,” he explained. “(Dustin and I) looked at what was happening and asked, ‘What can we do?’ We realized that, theoretically, it would be great to scan a barcode and have all the information on where your food comes from — a real farm to fork initiative.”
The Performance Beef mobile application is the first step. In its initial release, PLA on-boarded a long wait list of producers who believe the unique agricultural technology could help them organize and leverage their data.
“You need to run your farm like a business,” said Balsley. “That’s hard to do because successful beef producers are out with their livestock. We created advanced tools … in a system that makes it easier to collect data on the go.”
Even in the best conditions, records management is slow, time-consuming and sometimes inaccurate. It’s difficult to take record-keeping tools into the field — even tougher to access and sync with web-based resources. As a result, farmers record data later, sometimes relying on estimations, averages and memory. Some may wait long periods to document information, which can lead to omissions, inaccuracies and delayed access to data.
In such cases, a farmer’s records don’t necessarily account for the nuanced variables like harsh weather conditions, which can dramatically affect everything from diet to weight.
Performance Beef combines data on agricultural statistics, meteorological conditions, health and diet information, operations records and accessibility in a cloud-based mobile application.
“A farmer and his advisers can load in all his data,” Balsley explained. “The more records the farmer loads in, the more he’s able to monitor the health of his livestock.”
The app also improves records accuracy, allowing farmers to do real-time record keeping. The farmer also can grant access to veterinarians, agronomists, nutritionists and others. This enables them to upload and share data during visits instead of waiting until they return to their offices. This in turn allows a beef producer’s entire team instant access to the latest, most accurate livestock data.
“(Dane and I) both grew up on livestock farms,” said Balsley. “We both have the tech background, and we both worked for data science companies. There wasn’t anything like this for livestock — nothing that merged a farmer’s data about his stock with the vet records with the climate information and other tools farmers use.”
After founding PLA in Osage, PLA moved its headquarters to the Iowa State University Research Park in Ames. There, PLA can take part in the Ag Startup Engine and ISU Startup Factory and utilize interns. Kuper and Balsley work from both Ames and their farms.
In 2016, PLA won the top prize at the Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Venture Competition, including a $25,000 Proof of Commercial Relevance grant.
Next up is Cattle Krush, a real-time profit management application. Kuper and Balsley also have developed proprietary tools that complement Performance Beef by enabling app users to bypass manual data entry directly from their beef lots.
The partners main goal is to strengthen U.S. cattle production, said Balsley.
“We’ll stay here in the beef feed lots until we have done this job right,” he said.
This includes convincing Performance Beef users to contribute anonymously to a storehouse of livestock benchmark data. This resource will supply users with tracking and comparison data for the broader cattle market.
“Farmers guard their data fiercely, which is understandable,” Balsley noted. “You can be an island with your own little research park, or you can use anonymous benchmarks of the entire research park and use that data to find trend lines and patterns. Overall, having as much information as possible lets us get the best prices, which advances the industry as a whole.”
Many cattle producers understand the value in building the benchmark cache, he added.
“They see that we can use this information to drive everything to return on investment,” Balsley said. “It will be impossible to feed the world if producers aren’t financially stable. To feed the world, you have to feed the farmer first.”