Dairy production in 2016 is a high-tech affair. Robotics aid milking, computerization keeps product quality consistent, and information is a mere few clicks away. Communication, too, has joined the high-tech realm.
“Communication has become more immediate,” says Greg Squires, who manages Dairy Enterprises Services or DairyES. “People expect greater access in less time.” Squires is one of a host of enterprising entrepreneurs capitalizing on the availability of visual communication. He uses Team Viewer, JoinMe and Uber Conference to communicate with clients.
“It’s an effective way to provide business and financial consultation,” Squires says. His client list includes dairy producers of varying sizes, types and geographic locations. Video conferencing eliminates the hurdles of physical proximity and can tie multiple sites together.
“Much of my work involves existing business expansion or relocation. With video conferencing, I can illustrate projections and demonstrate scenarios and discuss the economics of the project.”
Farm management consultant Andy Junkin, a regular contributor to Progressive Dairyman, has taken his company, Agriculture Strategy, solely into the world of Skype. “First of all, it’s less expensive than having me come in person, and it’s more effective,” Junkin says.
He consults with families on how to make decisions together, hosting weekly half-hour meetings, and finds the video format allows for shorter, more productive meetings as well as cutting overhead.
“Video conferencing has allowed me to have a more profitable business. With use of a scheduling app, 100 percent of my time is billable time, and I can tap into a stable of expert consultants across the U.S. and Canada, all while maintaining client confidentiality.” He simplifies the technology by providing a quick, easy email link so even clients with limited tech expertise can participate.
Julie Kratz also finds benefit in the long-distance video approach, conducting leadership training as a People First coach for Zoetis. Some sessions involve in-person meetings; some utilize webinar technology.
“It’s definitely less expensive to do the webinars,” Kratz says. “In-person engagements can be cost-prohibitive, with a two-hour dinner in a restaurant for 20 people or so. Then there’s travel and lodging expense for the presenter. It may be appealing and engaging for the customer, but it is costly.”
Corporations have used webinars for years as a way of reaching a geographically broad base of employees. But reaching a voluntary audience requires some salesmanship. Making the webinar just as engaging as a live meeting can be one of Kratz’s biggest challenges.
“You have to ask questions and include the viewer in conversation,” Kratz says. “Sometimes changing the name can help. A ‘free online workshop’ can sound more interesting than ‘webinar.’”
Most using video conferencing find preliminary and follow-up communication via other means can enhance effectiveness. For Junkin, that’s a one-on-one phone call with client family members. For Zoetis, that’s salespeople on the ground.
There are obstacles
Kratz says she does find sensitive or complex material doesn’t always fit the webinar model. “We did a session on conflict with veterinarians, and they had little input. But after the webinar, they really opened up to the on-site representative. It can be hard to discuss something that might be emotional or painful with people you don’t know.”
Junkin finds it helps to keep meetings short.
Tom Wall, who calls himself “the dairy coach,” helps dairy producers with human resource development through a series of instructional videos but says he has yet to embrace video conferencing, as there can be too much body language nuance in the room during employee meetings.
For sales contacts, his clients prefer a good old-fashioned phone call.
Consuelo Romo, an administrative assistant with Frazer LLP, finds video ineffective, especially when numbers and finances are involved. “We started using GoToMeeting a couple of years ago but didn’t continue for very long, as most of our client base struggled a bit,” Romo says.
“In most cases, we needed to follow-up with a live meeting to really convey the depth of the spreadsheets and what we were trying to accomplish.”
Squires finds there are still parts of the country where Internet accessibility is an issue, with producers linked via inadequate DSL or even dial-up service.
Casey Niemann has taken his company, AgriSync, into new telecommunications territory. A downloadable app connects producers with financial managers, crops specialists, equipment experts and veterinarians, providing video support via the producer’s smartphone.
“We wanted to be part of how technology shapes veterinary consultation,” Niemann says. The producer can set up a video appointment with a vet, send video or still photos and receive diagnosis and treatment advice.
The app provides notifications and saves all photos and communications for future reference. “The vet can see the exact problem and consult with other vets if necessary,” Niemann explains. The producer can receive a timely diagnosis without the wait for an on-farm visit.
“In animal health, time matters,” Niemann says, “both in quick action on what could be a contagious health issue and in farm time management.” Even in cases that still require an in-person visit, pre- and follow-up consultations can streamline the process. Consultants pay a monthly fee to the app’s creators for its use; the app is free to producers.
However, the costs for its use are likely being passed along in other ways. Niemann says many of those using the service are regular customers of a consultant, so it’s one more service they provide.
For example, a veterinarian’s initial consultation may be completed via the app, yet an on-site visit may still be part of the overall treatment. The video capability saves the vet and producer time on the front end and for follow-up.
While the vet may be able to make the diagnosis with a video chat, he or she will still likely charge for the treatment and his or her consultation. The app just streamlines the process from both sides.
The technology has further implications in a confinement setting, enabling video screening of symptoms without jeopardizing outside contamination of an entire barn.
Dairy producers can use the app beyond animal health. Equipment repair can often be done by the producer with video coaching, as can facility siting, human resource development or financial planning.
Adopting new technology in communications, as well as production and animal welfare, is essential moving forward, according to Squires, who sees a day when every aspect of an animal’s care is electronically monitored.
Video systems within an operation can offer quick real-time views of the milking parlor, feed center, calving barn and treatment rooms from off-site. In time, individual life monitors will provide real-time data on heart and breathing rate and rumination.
“Technology will usher in a whole new way of approaching health and nutrition – from the preventative side rather than the treatment side,” Squires says. “As the global conversation continues on how to feed 10 billion people by the year 2060, we will continue to integrate new technologies into our existing practices.”
Terri Queck-Matzie is a freelance writer from Fontanelle, Iowa
PHOTO 1: A dairy producer uses AgriSync, a video chat smartphone app for farmers, to consult with his veterinarian. Photo provided by Casey Niemann.
PROS AND CONS
- Saves time
- Saves money
- Overcomes geographical barriers
- Provides permanent record of interaction
- Unfamiliar to some
- Areas of slow Internet service
- Not always applicable for complex or sensitive issues
- Can still require in-person prep and follow-up