There's a silo on Brent and Bruce Scholl's farm that was built in 1919 by their grandfather. It's not in use anymore, but it serves as a relic and landmark to a different era of farming as it stands near half of their cattle and nearly 3,300 pigs.
The Scholl farm is about 6 miles south of Polo. Like many cattlemen and farmers in 2014, Brent Scholl, 54, and Bruce Scholl, 52, have more information about the market and their livestock than ever before. The pigs that the Scholls were expecting to arrive in late January will come with a tattoo, so they can be tracked and information recorded about how lean the pigs are or how much they weigh – a history, of sorts, about the Scholls' livestock.
"We're inundated with technology and information," Brent Scholl said. "And sometimes it can be too much. ... You have to pick out what works for you."
Technology, as in other areas of life and farming, is giving cattlemen newer tools to raise, track, market and sell their animals. From climate-controlled hog buildings to computerized sale barns to online auctions, cattlemen have new ways to do things that have been done for generations.
The growing popularity of online auctions, for example, means that livestock can be bought and sold nearly every day, from anywhere, said Marshall Ruble, who specializes in livestock as an agriculture research station manager at Iowa State University.
Online auctions, including online exclusive auctions or bidding in a live auction on the Internet, has led to a more competitive market and put more eyes on cattle, he said.
"Even 5 years ago, I go out and look at a lot of cattle, you could find a diamond in the rough," Ruble said. "But they're not hidden anymore. They're all out there."
Even sale barns can take advantage of an online auction, Ruble said, when inclement weather may keep buyers away. If they can access an auction 5, 20 or even 100 miles away, there are more eyes and bids possible.
About 3 years ago, Ruble and his students started posting pictures and videos of livestock on Facebook and YouTube. They'd get calls from California and south Texas, he said, adding that the 19- and 20-year-old students are used to buying and selling online, while it took him some time to get comfortable with it.
But each morning when he'd look, the number of YourTube views constantly increased, Ruble said. A year ago, he sold some cattle to someone on the East Coast, he said, and met the buyer face-to-face only when he came to pick up the cattle.
Dan Shike, an associate professor of animal science at the University of Illinois, said during the history of livestock sales, numerous developments have taken the industry from private sales to live auctions to online auctions. At each step, he said, the market opened wider to where it is now.
"You basically have a national market rather than a local market," Shike said. That's great for sellers, and that's great for buyers, too."
Some online auctions are set up similar to eBay, with the cattle being purchased online only. Some auctions end at a specific time, Ruble said, but others add time – up to a point – with each new bid.
Selling online brings with it new risks, such as Internet connection and infrastructure issues, and unfamiliarity between buyer and seller. Those are some reasons that Scott Cuvelier, 58, who runs live barn sales in Walnut, Ill., and Cascade, Iowa, has been hesitant to fully embrace online auctions.
Like most things on the Internet, there are positives and negatives to online auctions, he said, adding that those auctions are another tool, "a two-edged sword, so to speak."
But Cuvelier isn't opposed to using technology in his business. It's a tool, he said, and like any tool, it's useful only if there's a need.
"As far as sale barns go, we're one of the more technologically advanced – fully computerized from the auction block to the office," he said.
The Walnut sale barn went computerized in 1991, Cuvelier said, streamlining the process, eliminating some errors, and speeding up the time it takes to print checks.
"We went from these huge Texas Instruments DOS machines, with little tiny monitors with shades of green, to where we are now, to the windows-based LCD flat screen monitors," Cuvelier said. "They still do the same thing. To tell you the truth, the old DOS machines we're more reliable. They were a little more bullet-proof."
The newer computers can do more, he said, but have a tendency to crash or require a reboot more often. Not every advancement is perfect.
But while Cuvelier might be a strong supporter of computerized auctions, he said there still are risks – like power outages or computerized scales failing.
Still, the benefits of the technology seem to outweigh the occasional risks, he said, emphasizing that the mishaps were only occasional.
Cuvelier bought the Cascade sale barn about 5 years ago, he said, when it had a few computers in the office and a sign that said, "Please wait 20 minutes for your check,"
A week later, the sale barn was fully computerized without missing an auction, he said. Now, most checks are printed and ready to be picked up by the time a cattleman walks from the stands to the office window.
Both Walnut and Cascade allow bids to be placed by phone, but not online.
"I can hear the people's voice on the phone, and I know who they are," Cuvelier said.
It's not just how livestock is sold
Technology hasn't affected just the way livestock is marketed or sold. The ability to track and analyze information, to put more precise economic values on livestock, also has developed, Shike said.
"Now, if you were to go to a pure feed stock sale, there would be so much information that you would be given, besides just looking at the bull," he said. "How the bull looks will make an impact, but there are tremendous amounts of info now available."
What started with tracking weights at different ages and comparing to the rest of the herd, Shike said, has evolved to looking back at an animal's ancestors to get a sense of how the animal should produce.
"It's pretty amazing how technology [is playing a role]," Shike said. "And certainly, we're in a time period of rapid increase in that area. And I think there will be time when we will be able to take a blood sample of an animal and really be able to understand the genetic potential of that animal."
The hog buildings on Brent Scholl's farm are climate controlled. So even as the temperature dipped into single digits and below zero in January, the pigs were kept in ideal conditions. Most of the corn grown on the farm goes to feed pigs and cattle, Scholl said, and the manure is collected in a 500,000-gallon tank to be used to fertilize the field. It's just more technology – more tools – at work.
"There’s is still labor involved in farming," Brent Scholl said just days before he and his brother power-washed a facility to prepare it for pigs they were expecting.
About 5 months after the Scholls get the pigs, the animals will be ready to be sold. They'll weigh about 280 pounds, with about four-tenths of an inch of back fat, Scholl said, opposed to 220 pounds and more than an inch of fat as was common years ago.
The leaner pigs meet a new market demand, he said, and are made possible by various technological advancements.
Those advancements are becoming more essential in the livestock business, Shike said.
"The only way we'll be able to increase our food production to keep up with demand is technology," he said.
Even for researchers and early-adopting cattlemen, predicting where technology in the industry is heading can be difficult, Ruble said from his office at Iowa State. But knowing the direction it's going can put a farmer "in the driver's seat."
"I know where the hockey puck is at this exact second," he said. "But I'd like to know where it's going to be in 5 minutes."