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Alberta Yield: Flokk shepherds in simple, affordable herd traceability

Mark Olson wanted herd management to be simple and practical.

There are a lot of electronic solutions on the market, but Olson said they’re geared toward smartphone or tablet use. The wear and tear is hard on electronics. That option can be expensive, too.

“Smartphones are designed for 13-year-old girls to exchange Snapchats,” he said.

“They’re not designed to be used at a cow chute in March.”

Recognizing a need in the livestock industry, and with growing consumer demand and federal regulation around traceability, Olson saw an opportunity.

That’s when Olson shepherded in his Flokk herd management system.

Ten years ago, Olson took over the family farm. He had grown up on that farm north of Calgary, near Cremona. That, combined with a prior career in IT development, gave him the hands-on experience to create a simple tool to track livestock.

Cattle across Canada come with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) ear tags, mainly so they can be traced from birth.  Olson’s plan was to build a RFID recorder that was functional and could handle the rigors of the farm.

Three years ago, an associate of his came back from a trade show in Red Deer and was looking at a herd management system. He wanted something that could read the RFID tags.

It was $3,000.

“As someone who had worked in it and open systems for years, I said, that I could do something that does that for less than $3,000,” Olson said.  

“And that’s where the process started.”

He took part in a 2019 trade show at Olds College. After that experience, he decided that Flokk would be his full-time future.

The rise of livestock traceability

Olson said upcoming federal regulations around traceability will formalize requirements for livestock location tracking and traceability. Right now, there’s limited formal reporting for livestock producers.

For producers exporting to Europe, the tracing rules are even more strict.

“We look at that as being the motivator for producers to want to do something better,” Olson said.  

“And we’re really hoping to position Flokk as the key tool that the producer uses at the animal side for managing and collecting their data.”

Everything from birthdate, vaccinations, feed, and location are just some of the data points that will be collected. It stays with the animal even if it moves off the farm.

Olson said the main difference between Flokk and other systems is the tracker.

“You’ll notice there’s no touchscreen there. There’s no keyboard there. It all works with push buttons and toggles. And the reason is it’s designed so you can use that with gloves on,” he said.

Others have asked him why he doesn’t just want to make an app for the smartphone.

“At just about this time of year, take that phone, go drop it into a chute full of heifers,” said Olson.  

“Yeah. And then come back and tell me that that was a good idea.”

No one wants to build their own hardware. But the outdoor environment makes something sturdier even more important, Olson said.

Focus on smaller operations

Olson said for now the focus is on smaller cow-calf operations in Alberta.  They’ll slowly expand into other provinces over time as the system is perfected.  He said the US cattle market is 10 times bigger and they’re lagging in traceability. They could make some hay south of the border, too.

The boost he’s getting from the Alberta Yield program through Platform Calgary is mainly in marketing and sales and to expose gaps in the overall business plan. He’s also using it as an opportunity to network with other agri-tech start-ups.

It’s all about exposure right now, reaching livestock producers and eventually in the line for venture capital.

They’ll be working the trade show circuit this fall, Olson said. There’s still that desire for personal contact in Alberta’s ag industry.  He hopes to make some sales, but at the very least grab a handful of beta testers across the province.

Ultimately, Olson wants easy, affordable tracking implementation for livestock producers.

“First and foremost, it needs to easily integrates into the operators’ day-to-day operations,” he said.

“That’s where we’re starting from, we can see all sorts of potential over the long term.”