Years of experience tinkering and an offhand comment started Randall Schwartzentruber on the path to solving one of the major challenges of poultry farming.
As co-founder and CEO of BinSentry, Schwartzentruber is pioneering a device that lets farmers know how much feed remains in their feed bins and when to schedule a feed delivery.
A few years ago, when he was working as an automation programmer, Schwartzentruber was on assignment at a feed mill, when the mill owner commented on a universal issue of bin monitoring.
“He told me that every single feed mill around the world has the same challenge,” Schwartzentruber said. “Once they produce and transport feed to farms and put it into the feed bins, they have no idea how much feed remains in those bins at any given time.”
Oftentimes farmers will try to gauge the fullness of their bins by throwing rocks at the side of the bins or by hitting them with a rubber mallet. A solid sound–the bin’s still full there. A hollow sound–the feed level has fallen at least below that level.
The difficulty in pinpointing when customers need more feed makes things harder for mills too, which are forced to be reactive to customers’ needs instead of proactive.
“When you’re collecting that kind of data, coming in via phone calls from hundreds or thousands of customers, it’s impossible to operate your mill effectively,” Schwartzentruber said. “They’re constantly having to wait for data to come in–bad data, at that sometimes.”
At first, he couldn’t believe that there wasn’t already an available product like the one he’d started mentally building, one that could monitor feed levels from inside the bin. Hours of research showed him there was indeed a gap in the market.
The solution started with Schwartzentruber at his kitchen table, studying hundreds of sensors he’d ordered from all over the world. BinSentry was officially founded in May 2017, and what was initially just Schwartzentruber and his idea has become 28 employees.
The sensor itself, still in its first generation for now, uses the same type of technology as the sensor in a self-driving car, Schwartzentruber explains. From an inner wall of the bin, the solar-powered sensor shines a beam of light to read the space around it every few hours and uses the information to create a 3D model which farmers can access online through BinSentry’s app. Once a farmer knows what level of feed they’re working with, they know exactly when they’re going to need more to keep their animals fed.
“The data we produce to the mills is way more actionable–what day exactly and what hour on what day is my feed bin going to be empty if my flock continues to feed at x rate for x days,” Schwartzentruber said.
The sensor is internet-connected but is on a type of wireless network that only requires enough bandwidth to send specific, small pieces of information, like feed levels, and distances. That’s particularly useful for farmers in rural areas, since the wireless system doesn’t require high-speed internet access to work.
That emerging technology was the opening Schwartzentruber saw for his sensors. “Here we are four years later, and BinSentry is essentially the market leader in this space,” he said. He credits a combination of factors to BinSentry’s success. Besides the need for the product and the forward-moving wireless capabilities, the company’s location has played a key role.
BinSentry is based in Kitchener-Waterloo, a city in Ontario, Canada, about an hour from Toronto. It’s a tech hot spot that’s home to many startups but is also close to farmland, something that helped Schwartzentruber ensure that the people who’d be most served by BinSentry’s sensor also had input in its creation and testing.
“The first and most important thing was proximity to our customers,” Schwartzentruber said. “You stay close to the customers and include them in the development process to ensure that if you’re going to fail, you fail early and you fail well. If you’re able to learn from those failures as quickly as possible, you’re going to be able to build something that actually appeals to the customers a lot sooner.” He also credits the openness of the tech industry in Kitchener-Waterloo, a place which Silicon Valley frequently taps for its resources in hardware and software development. A collaborative spirit between tech companies helped advise BinSentry, and a plethora of tech educational programs meant the company didn’t have to look far to recruit high quality talent onto its staff. However, BinSentry’s product was destined for bins far beyond those in Canada and the U.S.
The company’s reach is expanding by the day, especially since making food corporation Cargill the company’s primary distributor last summer. While the focus is still North America, BinSentry has sensors already operating in Europe, Latin America, Australia and soon in Asia. Also on the horizon is BinSentry’s second generation sensor, which will exponentially increase the accuracy of the 3D model by reading 9,000 data points in the bin. Looking even further ahead, Schwartzentruber hopes to innovate feed tracing by developing technology that makes sure the correct feed goes to the correct bins to be fed to the correct animals.
Sustainability is another benefit of BinSentry’s product, which cut down on transportation, one of the biggest costs and one of the biggest sources of pollution in the feed industry. “There’s a healthy amount of skepticism out there,” he said. “I think a lot of our customers never really thought they’d see the day where this problem was solved. We often launch a pilot program with our customers.” That allows them to test the product and see its effectiveness for themselves.
Article above from American Poultry Farmer magazine, c/o AmericanPoultryCompany,Inc
If you are a commercial poultry farmer, the magazine is Free! Get your free copy here: AmericanPoultryFarmer Free Copy
Not a poultry farmer? You can get a paid copy here: Pricing Plans for American Poultry Farmer Magazine.