Hog wild: Local entrepreneur bringing technology to the pigs

Feedlogic president Drew Ryder, left, discusses technology possibilities with engineer Wiebe Vanderhoek.

J.J.Jensen
   Living in California and working as a magazine publisher five years ago, the thought of one day becoming a blossoming player in the field of hog nutrition management technology never crossed Drew Ryder’s mind.
   But, after a call from his hog-farming brother-in-law in Canada, who asked him if he wanted to help develop a better hog-feeding system, and several years of research and development, Ryder today is a rising star in the hog-farming industry.
   Quietly, during the last few years, from an old feed store in Sumas, Ryder, a Lynden resident, and his brother-in-law, Dave Vaags, of Chilliwack, British Columbia, have been growing their business, Feedlogic Systems.
    The company, which develops hardware and software that can provide people in the hog industry with real-time monitoring and management of feeding, is gaining recognition in the technology world and selling its products at a rapid rate.
   “We’re pretty much an example of a couple of guys with some good ideas who pulled it off,” said Ryder, 43, who serves as president of Feedlogic. “It wasn’t like we assembled a team of experts. We had to build it and show it can work. Now we’re continuing to fine-tune everything.”
   At its core, the Feedlogic hog nutritional-management system is not too different from other hog-feeding systems. The system consists of a motorized feed delivery unit that travels along a rail inside barns and dispenses feed automatically into individual feeders located in pens.
   The Feedlogic system, however, goes far beyond other units, which typically run, dispense feed and then stop when they reach a sensor that instructs them to do so.
Unlike other systems, the Feedlogic feed-delivery system, which has two separate bins capable of carrying 125 pounds of feed each, also has a computer attached to it.
   Through the computer, the weight and time of each feed delivery is recorded and transmitted by a wireless network to an off-board computer. Each system can then be monitored and managed from anywhere in the world, via a landline connection.
“What we’ve done is combine some unique hardware with some very powerful software,” Ryder said. “Because this unit has a computer in it, it can be programmed however the user wants it to feed.”
   All Feedlogic systems are custom built. Prior to building a unit, a Feedlogic representative will meet with the farm’s owner to determine how a system could work within an existing structure. With new barns, a Feedlogic employee will meet with a construction company official so the barn can be built to best suit the system, or vice versa.
   Once installed, the Feedlogic system provides users with a “virtual barn view,” customized to the pen layout and feed-bin contents of each barn. The software allows the user to manage the time, frequency and speed of feeding, along with what mixture of diets to feed the hogs. The software also contains a data module which can create reports on feeding activities and collect data by pen, feeder and specified time periods.
   The Feedlogic hardware — the feed-delivery system that travels on the rail above the barn — can feed up to 2,000 hogs.
   The hardware is equipped with ceiling-mounted sensors, to determine where to stop and drop the feed, and a loading station, where the unit returns to be reloaded with more feed.
   The system, said Ryder, is allowing commercial and research barns to do things they’ve never done in the past.
   Because the system gives a feed-intake report — or how much feed hogs in individual pens are consuming — farmers can determine how much feed needs to go to specific pens.
   “Ideally, the diets can be adjusted based on intake,” said Ryder. “If the pigs are eating less, you should be feeding them a slightly different diet than if they’re eating more.”
   The feed-intake report can also give users clues to their pigs’ health.
   “Because you get feedback, you’re going to know if you have a problem in a pen really quickly, because a drop in feed intake is usually one of the first signs pigs are getting sick, don’t have access to enough water or that the feeder is plugged,” Ryder said.
   Another benefit of the feed-intake report, said Ryder, and knowing which pigs are eating fast and which are eating slow, is that it gives users a better idea of the amount of food, and what kind of diets, to feed the hogs. This information can allow farmers to control diets so their pigs can all be near the same weight when it’s time to ship them.
   “You want to try to ship them all within the smallest window possible and not separately over the course of a few weeks,” Ryder said. “When you have empty pens, that’s capacity you’re giving away. Because we can feed different diets to different bins, users have the opportunity to take lighter pigs that need a different diet and put them in specific pens. You can slow down the amount of feed for one group or speed it up for another.”
   Rather than distributing feed exactly as producers made it, Feedlogic also allows users to blend diets on the fly, by programming the software to mix any two types of feed at specified rations.

Ryder displays how the Feedlogic system can distribute specific amounts of feed to specific pens.

   Potentially, said Ryder, determining the amount of phosphates and nitrates hogs consume — and eventually end up in manure and the soil — could also have an environmental benefit and be a way for hog farmers in some areas to show concerned neighbors that they’re reducing the amounts of these harmful byproducts.
   Ultimately, said Ryder, Feedlogic’s main concern is helping farmers cut down on their feed costs, which can account for more than 60 percent of operating expenses, and to get as many pigs as possible to the market.
   One of Feedlogic’s first users, Kansas State University, where students in the Department of Animal Sciences & Industries have been feeding specific diets to individual feeders and monitoring intake, has been pleased thus far with the system’s capabilities.
   “We tested one of Feedlogic’s systems for six months and were impressed with the weighing accuracy and overall performance,” said Mike Tokach, a swine nutrition specialist at the university. “With this level of automation in the barns, we will realize savings in labor costs and be able to conduct more trials in a shorter period of time.”
   Feedlogic, which has its main headquarters across the border in Abbotsford, which is closer to Vaag’s home, has received attention elsewhere.
   In 2003, the company received the Dr. F.X. Aherne Prize for Innovative Pork Production and, in 2002, was rated by New Ventures BC among the top three emerging technology companies in British Columbia.
   This year, however, has been a breakout year financially for Feedlogic, said Ryder.
Since its founding in 2001, Feedlogic had sold fewer than 10 of its systems, which cost around $35,000. This year, the company has already sold 16.
   In the next few months, said Ryder, the company will likely add several more manufacturing engineers, software developers and managers to its staff of seven. And, if orders continue to increase, the company may have to find larger facilities, preferably in Whatcom County.
   “Are we good, or are we lucky — I don’t know,” Ryder said, “but the signs are there that we have something that works and something that’s needed.”

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