Jackson startup brings wearable technology to beef industry
JACKSON — In Melissa Brandao’s vision, every cow in Wyoming will soon sport a new high-tech earring, transferring real-time data via Bluetooth on the animal’s location and biometrics.
Brandao is the founder and chief revenue officer of HerdDogg, a technology company that creates specialized ear tags and tracking software to give ranchers information on their herd and in turn increase the value of each animal. The venture-backed ag tech startup launched in Ashland, Oregon, and recently moved its headquarters to Laramie, which has attracted a suite of tech companies over the past decade due to its low costs and the opportunity for partnerships with the University of Wyoming.
This month HerdDogg also partnered with Jackson’s Lockhart Cattle Company to pilot its latest Bluetooth platform.
“Sometimes I pinch myself. I’m standing in one of the most beautiful places on the planet talking about just an incredibly innovative solution for the meat industry,” Brandao said Monday, looking out over a sea of Hereford heifers.
That solution is both the hardware — tags that remotely monitor ambient temperature, location and acceleration — and the software to aggregate data points, track each cow through its lifespan, and provide a user-friendly readout via the HerdDogg app.
For the startup, finding a ranch like the Lockharts’ was critical as both a proof of concept and a stage for marketing. The ranch’s location near the base of the Teton Range makes for an ideal backdrop for photo shoots and video spots.
The Lockhart partnership was also strategic, Brandao said, because the family oversees its entire production chain — cattle are born, raised, processed and sold within Teton County — allowing for a comprehensive test of her startup’s traceability standard and a chance to “establish the rules of the game.”
There are two main sides to the HerdDogg operation, starting with the connection between cattle and rancher. At a smaller operation like Lockhart Cattle that relationship is now maintained by the cowboy riding around the pastures, checking Sharpied numbers on neon ear tags and making mental notes about the health of each animal.
“Most of this information for any rancher is usually in their head,” said Chase Lockhart, who has helped steer the family ranch for nearly a decade.
That information is then recorded on pen and paper and transferred to a computer, a relatively dated and laborious process by modern standards. HerdDogg’s tech would allow most of that data to be uploaded automatically to the cloud, which a cowboy like Chase would then be able to access from his smartphone.
In between those two extremes is a product called radio-frequency identification tags, which identify and transmit a unique identifying number that can be read by an electronic scanner as cattle are funneled through a chute. That technology is already being implemented in farms across the country, and it has been heavily pushed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its ability to reduce livestock diseases.
The Bluetooth tags are superior in range (they can be read up to 100 yards) but they’re more expensive, costing $10 to $15 compared with just $2 to $5 for RFID. Most ranches in Wyoming haven’t made the jump to either product because profit margins in the cattle industry are so slim.
Kate Mead of the Mead Ranch in Jackson said she can see the new technology becoming ubiquitous if the price per tag was reduced, especially as consumers start to care more about how livestock are treated.
That’s where the second part of HerdDogg’s model comes in. By tracking each cow through its life on a ranch, that data can then be used to communicate a life story to consumers when they buy their beef. The goal is for each steak to have a scannable QR code on its packaging, which would bring up a profile of the animal you’re about to eat.
Chase Lockhart said he’s still deciding exactly what information would come up when consumers scan the code on their phone. While it likely won’t show you a particular cow’s step count, it could give you its name, weight, age and even a profile picture.
One key metric would be “animal miles,” or the distance the cow traveled for its feed, slaughter and service to markets.
As consumers become more conscientious, Lockhart and HerdDogg hope they’ll also be willing to pay a premium for a more environmentally-friendly product.
“The cattle industry is moving toward more information,” Lockhart said. “And the more information you can add to your product, basically, the more value you’re going to add to your product.”
Convincing Jacksonites to support local producers has been a core part of the Lockhart mission since brothers Chase and Cody Lockhart took over the family operation a decade ago and focused on getting their beef into local markets. By now, most folks in town know the story of the multigenerational ranch and its grass-fed cattle, so it’s not entirely clear how much of a difference a QR code will make.
But if the popularity of farmers markets and farm-to-table restaurants are any indication, consumers are willing to pay more for a meal with a backstory. Being able to provide those stories, which currently only the cowboys know, could increase the value of every cow on the Lockharts’ lot.
“The margins are tight in the red meat industry, so anything that you can do to add value to your product is going to be attractive,” Lockhart said, adding that this is where he sees the market going so “why not try to be on the front end of it?”
The opportunity to ride that changing tide was also convincing for Brandao, a University of California Berkeley graduate who left her position at Apple to dive into international financial technology before finally landing in agricultural technology.
This month she convinced another former Apple employee, Jesse Ellenbogen, to jump ship and join HerdDogg as vice president of user experience. All told the company now has about 15 employees, and it is rapidly starting partnerships with other ranches in Wyoming and Colorado, as well as ranches in Brazil and Australia. The company has also partnered with the National Bison Association and big-name companies like Panera.
In deciding to move the operation from Oregon to Wyoming, Brandao said Colorado was also in contention, but the Cowboy State won out because of its friendly laws for both cattle ranches and tech companies. Laramie in particular has worked to attract tech startups and retain UW graduates through programs like the Wyoming Technology Business Center.
Laramie resident and former Marine Stan Seibel worked in the Wyoming oil industry for 20 years before sensing it was time to get out this past year. He hopped on the chance to join HerdDogg’s growing team, where he now works as a field technician.
On Monday he was out on the Lockhart ranch, checking for blinking lights on the tags to make sure they were pairing with the remote data collection hub called “DogBone,” which is housed in a solar powered bird house-like structure.
When he zip-tied one of these devices, about the size of an old-fashioned cellphone, to the bottom of a DJI drone (testing the viability of fly-over data collection) the entire ensemble promptly fell out of the sky, landing with such violence it somersaulted, shattering all four propeller blades.
“That was supposed to be a safe landing,” Seibel said with a grimace.
Working with the Lockharts has been a chance to work out the kinks, and as anyone who’s ever tried pairing a device with Bluetooth can attest, getting everything to speak to each other can be a bit of a headache.
But Brandao is optimistic. Shortly after the drone crash, she said a full launch looks likely by midsummer, meaning customers could soon start to see QR codes on Lockhart packages and gain unprecedented access to the backstory of their beef. And that’s just the start, the founder said.
“We would like to be able to get more Wyoming producers working with us and create a traceability model for the country.”