In the midst of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, technology invention and integration increasingly define success for the beef industry. As the lines between physical and digital blur, beef producers could find themselves in a surprisingly familiar market space where efficiency, quality and a personal touch still reign supreme.

Tom Field

Tom Field, Paul Engler Chair of Agribusiness Entrepreneurship at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, spoke on disruptive technologies at the K-State Ranching Summit in Manhattan.

Tom Field, Paul Engler Chair of Agribusiness Entrepreneurship at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, met producers during the Kansas State University Ranching Summit to discuss disruptive technologies — but made it clear technology alone would not carry agriculture into the new era.

A Human Element

“I’m not coming to you from a place where all technology is good and every technology should be used in every situation,” Field said. “As a matter of fact, most of the really cool ideas available to us are decidedly low tech.” 

Disruptive technologies by definition create new market space and overall value in an industry. Field said it’s easy to view technology innovations as simply disruptive, rather than viewing the value they bring to products and services.

“Disruption opens doors,” Field said. “It’s not negative — it’s positive and that positivity is really in how you think about it.”

This consistent change avoidance in agriculture as a whole has left the industry consistently last to the table when it comes to inventing and implementing technology.

 “We are the lowest technology-using industry in the world,” Field said. “A little bit of bad news but I think it’s actually good news — because it means everyone else’s research and development has paid for technologies we can now adopt.”

The ongoing battle to retain technologically talented individuals who understand the unique cultural significance of beef producers will be won or lost during the New Industrial Revolution.

Field posed a question to gauge his audience’s familiarity with ag-based tech: “How many agriculture-focused start-up companies are there in Silicon Valley?”  While answers ranged from zero to less than 15, Field set the record straight — there are more than 900.

Embracing and encouraging intuitive problem-solvers is characteristic of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where technology becomes increasingly tied in to physical and environmental systems, Field said.

“Breakthroughs never happen with the first solution,” Field said. “As a matter of fact, if you want to get into the world of entrepreneurship never ever fall in love with the solution — fall in love with the problem.”

As human talent becomes vital to the success of the beef industry and agriculture as a whole, Field said the gender ratio would gradually begin to favor women.

“We are no longer going to play with half of our talent on the sidelines,” Field said. “There will be more women CEOs of agricultural companies in the next decade than in all of the combined history prior to that and we will never look back.”   

New Tech Systems

The Fourth Industrial Revolution represents a leap in complexity catalyzed by integrating technology into every aspect of life and business.  While agriculture served as a facilitator for the first industrial revolutions, the industry’s new role will be more about adopting existing technologies.

Field said there are five important technologies that will define the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Geo-positioning, the internet of things, automation, data analytics and sensing.

Each of the five technologies has an element of data — an element Field said would be a game-changer for modern beef production.

“Along the full supply chain we will be able to take big data and translate it to operational excellence,” Field said. “I believe we’re gonna get better as ranchers because of access to good data.”

Field used early technology adopters as an example of the kinds of data farmers and ranchers can expect to have access to in the coming years.

“Visa knows globally three big things where consumers spend their money — cell phones, cars and protein,” Field said.

For anyone who has seen thrillers like “The Matrix”, the thought of machine learning, big data or a robotic age is a troubling concept. For Field, the human component of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is a necessary and driving force for technological success.

Field said machines are not empathetic, are incapable of large-scale creativity or long-range planning— especially across complex systems — and, most importantly, they can’t tell a story.

“We are the storytellers,” Field said. “That’s our power and that’s what separates us from the machines.”

With increased access to information, consumers will demand consciously produced food connected to a producer with a story. As producers and consumers simultaneously become technologically closer and culturally distant, Field said it will become increasingly important for proud producers to stand behind their products.

“We are going to be accountable for what we produce,” Field said. “We produce the highest quality, safest product in the world and if we believe that — shouldn’t we be willing to put our family names on it?”

Field referred to the environment facing beef producers as a frontier where new tools and experiences lie around every corner and no singular technology rises above the others.

“There is no technology that saves the day,” Field said. “There is no technology that comes riding in with John Wayne and the cavalry that saves us — it isn’t going to happen.”

Because technology itself is value-neutral, Field said technology integration would be a true defining factor. Skills like stockmanship, entrepreneurship and leadership would continue to translate into success for producers when paired with ingenuity and technological savvy. 

“For those of you under 30, the most important things in your world are the quality of your relationships and the goodness of your word,” Field said. “That’s more important than all of the technology you have at your disposal.”

Field encouraged producers to hold true to values that have been the backbone of beef industry success while being open to new technologies and the opportunities they bring.

“In the midst of this complexity, those who will win are those who are able to connect their heads and their hearts,” Field said. “This is not just a game of the head. It’s a game of the head and the heart — and that’s where we have the advantage.”