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Ranching In a World of Technology

by: Steve Weisman

This article was originally published in the February 2014 issue of American Cattlemen Magazine

american-cattlemen-cover Herd management — those two words are huge for cattle producers as they work to keep their business profitable. More than ever before, herd management has entered the field of technology with software programs designed to provide a record keeping system to track cattle and help producers make sound decisions. For many producers, these software programs can be daunting so it is important to choose one that is user friendly with built-in support that’s only a tap or phone call away. Over the years there has been no shortage of choices of herd management programs for ranchers and most of these have come and gone with hardly a handful withstanding the test of time. To cattle producers, time is money, so the question becomes “Which one?” Enter Terrell and Penny Miller, owners of Cattlesoft, Inc., and the creators and designers of CattleMax, a cattle software program that they initially designed in 1999. Since then, Cattlesoft, Inc. has helped thousands of farms and ranches in their record keeping needs in all 50 states and over 70 countries with its CattleMax software program. Not bad for a couple of Texas A & M University college kids — but then as Paul Harvey would advise, read on for “the rest of the story.”

Solving a problem

Terrell and Penny were seniors in 1999 at Texas A&M University, when their lives forever changed as a result of Penny choosing to complete her education with an independent study project. This eventually led to the creation of the CattleMax program and the company, Cattlesoft, Inc. Terrell says, “Penny’s family needed a way to keep track of their cows. At that time, their record-keeping methods were like those of most other cattle producers where simply a pen and paper were mixed with countless hours in an attempt to organize all of the information needed for decision making.” With Penny’s degree in Agricultural Development to go along with her experience of showing cattle in 4H and FFA as a youth and Terrell’s degree in Information and Operations Management, their goal was to create a simple database to manage the cattle records for Penny’s family herd. The project was a success, saving Penny’s family time and underscoring the benefits of well-organized cattle records.

Passing the rancher test

While the Millers showed their prototype software program to professors and agriculture extension personnel, news about the project reached Jim Howell, ranch manager for Hilliard Ranches, who was currently in the market for information technology solutions to improve herd management. According Terrell, their record keeping system was a large box filled with notebook binders labeled “Cattle Records”. Terrell spent the next few months building the software to handle this larger herd, which numbered in the hundreds. “We quickly realized the importance of saving the user as much time as possible because each second saved added up when you multiply this time by the number of cattle.” One of the first tests of the CattleMax program would be the way the ranch prepared its calf sales. Prior to CattleMax, the ranch’s calf sales preparation was to look through the multiple paper binders and calculate each calf’s age. Those that were weaning age were marked to round up and take to the sale. This manual process took many hours over multiple days just to make the list. Terrell still recalls a phone call shortly after the ranch manager began using CattleMax:
Jim: “Terrell, yesterday I printed a list of calves to sell and it took a minute.” Terrell: “I’m so sorry about that Jim, I can check into that and see if I can make the report load faster.” Jim: “No, that’s not what I meant. In the past, several of us would go through the calving books and make lists and this always took hours. Now I just punch a few buttons and in a minute, I have exactly what I need.”

Growing by listening to Ranchers

Other ranchers began to hear about the software, and Terrell and Penny realized there was a need for rancher-friendly software at an affordable price. Their first year in business resulted with a few ranches in Texas using CattleMax. Word-of-mouth advertising soon gave way into a full-fledged world-wide marketing campaign, which has resulted in active customers utilizing the software in over 70 countries. Terrell stresses the importance of not only merging the trends of both technology and the cattle industry, but also making sure the software leads the way in innovative ideas that are cultivated directly on the ranch by actual users. “Since the beginning we have always worked in a cycle of gathering feedback from ranchers and further enhancing the software to meet those needs, followed by a reality check to make sure the software is in line with those expectations. We then start the process again for the next version with a goal to ‘one-up’ the current version.” In 2006, Cattlesoft Inc., earned a spot on the coveted Aggie 100 list, an award developed by the Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship at the Mays Business School of Texas A&M University in College Station, TX. The Aggie 100 recognizes the 100 fastest growing Aggie-owned or Aggie-operated businesses. The importance of a good software management system has become clearer, especially during the past few years, says Terrell “because record keeping is not optional when the cost to maintain a cow for one year is nearly $600. Plus, ID requirements are increasing and the way to recover the cost of compliance is to start managing cattle better.”

Evolving in a World of Constant Change

The old adage that nothing ever stays the same certainly holds true in the cattle industry. Reflecting on those changes, Terrell says, “For many years, cattle software programs were desktop-based and downloaded from the Internet or installed from a CD. While desktop-based software helped ranchers organize their information in one place, this disconnected structure had its drawbacks. Penny and I both felt we needed to work on overcoming those challenges to make it easier for our customers and reduce their time spent record keeping.” There is a major downside to the desktop-based software. “It lacks mobility,” according to Terrell. “The true activity occurs out in the pasture or at the working pens. Ranchers need to record when a new calf is born, or when they moved cattle to a different pasture. Previously these observations would be written on the nearest piece of paper, a notepad, maybe a feed receipt or even a grocery list. Hopefully, this information found its way to the record books, but often it didn’t.” The way in which ranchers could manage their cattle began to change as mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets became more prevalent. This led Cattlesoft to develop a new web-based version of CattleMax. Designed from the ground-up to be focused on real-time collaboration throughout the ranch, this version enables everyone on the ranch to view any information when they need it. The CattleMax Online release is a significant change to the software and has been enthusiastically received by existing customers, with over 75 percent of those trying out CattleMax Online choosing to upgrade. Now with CattleMax being accessible on mobile devices such as iPhones, iPads, Androids, etc, recording of events and notes is done “live” as it happens. “Ranchers and ranch hands are using iPads to enter calves right in the pasture. For decades they were using calving papers and workbooks to record the details but now the benefits of this technology makes record keeping much easier and faster. Producers have even told us they record cattle sales information in the parking lot and enter feed expenses while they are waiting for their trucks to be loaded with feed and supplies,” says Terrell.

Ranchers helping Ranchers

“Since we began in 1999, we have always believed that customers should have access to free support by phone and email to ensure their success with CattleMax. Quality customer service is one of the top reasons customers choose us.” As CattleMax grew, more help was needed, but finding people that knew both cattle and technology was a challenge. Terrell laughs remembering, “At the time, it was not very easy to find someone who knew both (cattle and technology). We couldn’t just post that type of position on an online job board asking someone to relocate their family and their cattle to our location. We had to ensure someone knew CattleMax and would be able to relate with ranchers. So, one evening we came up with the idea of mentioning the job listings in our customer newsletter. Within a week, we had over 50 applicants for three positions. After many solid interviews, we hired Ken Lyon and Nathan Boles as our customer service representatives. Not only were they familiar with CattleMax having used it for years, but they also understood what it’s like to be on the other end of the phone.” In addition to this personal customer support, free online classes are hosted several times per month with attendance open to anyone. Producers can watch the class on their own computer and the CattleMax team provides extensive question and answer sessions with a wide range of topics. This Q & A format allows ranchers to learn from questions asked by other ranchers. Upon entering the CattleMax website (www.cattlemax.com), readers will notice the use of the word “Howdy” as their greeting and also as their email address. This is a common Texas greeting and is quite popularly used at Texas A&M. Terrell, Penny and their team believes in open, friendly communication and, says Terrell, “our use of  ‘Howdy’ conveys that to producers everywhere.” Whether producers are brand new to the cattle industry or have been raising cattle for decades, being a good cattle manager is a key to ranch success. This starts with tracking the herd’s performance, which CattleMax has been doing for over 15 years. For those who are wondering if CattleMax could be a good fit for your needs, check out the free trial at www.CattleMax.com. And now you know the “rest of the story” — the Cattlesoft team continues on their mission to help producers everywhere make a difference for their families and communities through ranching.

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