IT Innovation Award Winner CowBos develops a custom app and sees more accurate recommendations, faster billing and doubles sales.
We figured there had to be a way to use technology rather than using a pen, a pad of paper and a calculator,” explains Cody Chytka, national sales manager for CowBos. That desire to find a more efficient means of analyzing cattle intake of the CowBos feed supplement led to the development of an iPad app that has resulted in multiple benefits for CowBos.
And, it led to CowBos being named the winner of the 2014 AFIA Information Technology Innovation Award, an annual contest sponsored by Feed & Grain, the American Feed Industry Association and AgGateway.
CowBos Liquid Feeds, a division of Penny Newman Grain, produces a complete liquid feed supplement for beef cattle that provides protein, energy, vitamins and trace minerals. Chytka says the supplement increases microbial yield, microbial efficiency and nutrient utilization.
“A unique aspect of our product is its ‘sweet/bitter’ balance,” Chytka says. The two products are custom-blended at the trough to maintain optimal proportions of protein, energy and trace minerals as the quality and availability of forages and pastures changes throughout the year.
It’s the job of the CowBos distributors to analyze these variables and recommend changes in the percentages of sweet/bitter during their regular ranch visits and product deliveries.
The initial drive behind the app’s development was the desire to be able to make calculations more easily and accurately, while making billing less time-consuming.
“Our goal is to provide consistent uptake of our product to allow the producer to be more precise in their budgeting on supplement costs, and to respond to changing environmental conditions that affect feed intake and quality,” Chytka says.
Sounds like a simple application for technology? Chytka says soon after they decided to pursue a technology solution, they realized there wasn’t an off-the-shelf product that would fit their needs.
Chytka enlisted Don Wishard, a tech-savvy CowBos distributor, to assist in the technology search.
“In the beginning, we looked at what our dealers do in the field, and we didn’t see it as a very difficult challenge that could be handled with a simple app,” Wishard recalls. “We’d get a developer involved, tell them what we wanted, they’d put it together, and we’d be done.”
But, he says, their business posed variables that were foreign to the app developers they worked with. “Determining the sweet/bitter ratio was one challenge,” Wishard says. “It’s fairly simple to pull up to an empty trough and mix a ratio. But when there’s carry-over from the last time, and you want to add more product to get a new mixture, that was a stumbling block, as was keeping track of overall consumption records.”
Recognizing CowBos had special requirements, Wishard took the lead on the app development, working with a commercially available app framework and adding their requirements.
The CowBos app took shape in several stages. Wishard reached what he refers to as “Iteration 1 functionality” and put the app into the hands of a few dealers for a real-world test.
“What we lacked at that point was connectivity,” he says. “These were stand-alone users out there, with all the data held on the device. If something happened to the device, the data wouldn’t be available.”
Wishard pushed forward with introducing connectivity that would transfer data collected in the field to a central location, or cloud storage.
Importantly, the app had to allow full functionality regardless of Internet connection, and it does. “The system runs locally on their iPad. Everything they need is there,” he says.
Getting to this state of connectivity marked the second phase of the development. “At that point, we had a system dealers could use in the field to increase their productivity. Calculations were faster; record keeping was automated.
“At that point, with all that data in a digital format, the logical next step was to incorporate an accounting package for invoicing and gain more productivity,” Wishard says.
The development of the accounting package, “phase three,” took another year and led to the completion of the app and its adoption throughout the CowBos network.
“Throughout this entire process, we weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, but we kept finding that what was available on the market did not meet our requirements,” Wishard adds.
Having great technology is of little benefit unless everyone knows how to use it. The CowBos app development team started off on the right foot by pushing progressive versions out to selected dealers to gain their feedback. This helped make sure the text and graphic interfaces were relevant to this particular audience. That led to features such as fewer and larger buttons, and screen features designed for easy reading in daylight.
Training, Chytka says, started with formal programs and is ongoing. “We found the biggest learning curve was as much about how to use an iPad as it was for the actual program. Don did a stellar job in making our app very easy to navigate, and easy to input data and gain answers.”
Training sessions included a classroom session, webinars and training videos. The classroom training was probably least effective, they say, whereas one-on-one training has worked the best. “Every distributor has their own learning curve,” Chytka explains.
Wishard says people new to the CowBos organization tended to learn the ins and outs of the new app faster than company veterans. “When people who’d been with us longer ran into a stumbling block, they’d want to figure it out the old way, by hand. Newer people didn’t know the old way.”
Now, nobody’s turning back. “Once we helped people over any hurdles, there’s no way they’d go back to using paper and a calculator,” Wishard says.
While the CowBos app has provided faster, easier and more accurate calculations of ration mixing in the field, the organization has realized more dramatic savings in accounting paperwork.
What used to take salespeople a day or two doing end-of-month accounting and billing now takes several hours.
“The time savings is huge,” says Jodi Stone, marketing manager for CowBos. The accuracy is better, too, adds Wishard. “No longer do they have to figure out if they jotted down a ‘2’ or a ‘7’.”
Stone says branding is another benefit of the billing aspects of the accounting package they developed for the app.
“Even though we have independent distributors, all invoices look the same from dealer to dealer. This improves our brand consistency from state to state,” she says.
Chytka says having deep and consistent data available from their entire customer base will prove ever-more valuable.
“Great management requires great data, and quick access to it,” he says. “That’s another aspect of this app. It’s not just keeping track of each individual customer account, but we can look at summaries of what products are moving, and what services have been done.
“Our distributors can look at daily, weekly and monthly information, all within a few taps on the screen,” Chytka continues. “They have the data to understand their customers better. They can make better decisions.”
The CowBos app development was a three-year project that involved plenty of trial and error. Early on, they realized they could not simply tell a developer what they wanted and have it delivered to them. Rather, it took the leadership of Wishard, with his unique talents as both a dealer and a tech-savvy distributor, and the unwavering commitment from Chytka, Stone and the rest of the management team to bring it to fruition. Releasing progressive versions into the field for actual user review and input was another key to its success.
Now, as stated on its IT Innovation Award entry form, this new technology has allowed CowBos and its dealer network to increase productivity in the field by eliminating paperwork and tedious calculations. This has contributed to doubling of sales over the past year by attracting new dealers as well as better business management through faster data access and analysis.
Android or iOS?
Don Wishard, who led the CowBos app development, says several factors led him to select the iOS system over Android.
“We wanted a database component for this project, and the one that we chose to work with was an iOSsystem,” he says. “That’s what initially led us to iOS, and iPads.”
“As we got further into the project, we realized that the iPad was a good choice. It’s a consistent format, size and layout. It narrowed the scope of the project to just one platform and one device, rather than trying to tackle all the options available with Android.”
Wishard says an initial concern was how well the iPads would stand up to the conditions faced by their salespeople in the field, but he says they’ve seen very few, if any, failures.
“I’d say the iPads are more resilient than an old button calculator or a laptop. The touch screen is easy and intuitive.”
Chytka says that some dealers have placed a bracket for the iPads in their delivery vehicles. “They don’t even take it out of the cab. They just step out, get the information they need, step back in and input the data, and they’re done.”