Land O’Lakes to grow breed of digitally savvy farmers

Improving animal health and welfare is on the agenda of the US food group

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When Barry Libenson announced he was leaving his post as chief information officer at Land O’Lakes in June 2013, the board of directors at the $15bn food and agricultural co-operative did not need to look far to identify his successor.

Mike Macrie had already been working at the US food group for three years, most recently in the role of vice-president of IT in the company’s agricultural services division.

In his short time at the company, Mr Macrie had already established a reputation as an expert in digital transformation, spearheading an extensive revamp of the division’s back-end IT systems and an overhaul of the web presences of two Land O’Lakes’ brands: Purina and Winfield Solutions.

He was also involved in the development and launch, in 2012, of R7, a web-based crop planning tool that combines satellite images of fields and information on soil types and weather patterns with crop­ yield data collected from Land O’Lakes’ own test fields or so-called “answer plots”, of which it has 200 across the US, Canada and Mexico. The R7 tool helps agronomists and farmers work together to work out which crops and farming techniques will work best for their fields.

Since taking on the chief information officer role, the work on digital transformation has continued. Mr Macrie says: “I feel we’re probably around three years into a 15-year journey in which agriculture will be totally transformed by new technologies. There’s a massive infusion of new ideas coming at America’s farmers and our intention is to deliver tools in ways that are truly useful to them.”

This is important to Land O’Lakes because of its co-operative, farmer-owned structure. The company is perhaps best known to the average American shopper as a manufacturer of dairy products, such as butter and cheese, but it is also a supplier of animal feeds through the Purina brand, as well as seed and crop protection products through its Winfield Solutions division.

In other words, its business model requires it to work closely with farmers — both those who produce its raw materials such as milk and corn it needs to manufacture its products, as well as those and who buy its products. In total, Land O’Lakes’ 3,600 direct producer-members and 850 member co-operatives serve more than 300,000 agricultural producers.

For those farmers that make up Land O’Lakes customer base, Mr Macrie and his team have launched Answertech.com, a Winfield-branded content and community site that farmers can visit to research products, techniques and emerging technologies, as well as download a range of mobile apps built in-house at Land O’Lakes, including R7 and ScoutPro, which allows them to submit photos of pests and crop diseases in order to receive accurate identification and advice on treatment.

And on producer farms, Land O’Lakes is working to help dairy farmers improve animal health and increase yields from their herds. One pilot test, now under way, involves technology that allows farmers to track the ovulation cycles of dairy cows in real time. This enables them to time insemination better and thus increase impregnation rates.

Another pilot test involves ear tags that track the physical movement of cows, allowing farmers to detect illness faster that the traditional methods of observation and lab testing.

Mike Macrie, chief information offcer at US food group Land O’Lakes

“Education and getting farmers comfortable with technology are big focus areas for us right now. Agricultural technology, we feel, is advancing faster than our members’ ability to process it and incorporate it into their business. So that’s a big change management effort for us right there,” says Mr Macrie.

The company’s brand has been in the market for more than 90 years and is widely recognised and purchased by older shoppers, but Mr Macrie is working with colleagues in marketing to build greater awareness among younger shoppers from the so-called “millennial generation”. This will be another big focus for 2016, he says.

“As media buyers move to new, digital channels advertising on social media, for example, we face the same challenges as any consumer packaged goods company with a well-known, long­time brand. We need to reach out in ways that are completely different to how we’ve promoted our products in the past,” he says.

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