Southern Minnesota’s Global Ag Technology Solution Team
Growing up on his family’s farm near Mapleton, Mark Jaeger is no stranger to the ag industry. Jaeger is now owner of the Mankato-based company, HerdStar, which primarily sells equipment to the agricultural livestock industry. Through partnerships with its customers, the company creates technology that allows those in the ag livestock and industrial sectors to maximize their operational efficiency, as stated in its mission statement. Starting as a small two-man operation, the business has grown to around 17 employees who Jaeger considers family, working with many of them for over 20 years. At one point the company even employed Jaeger’s parents and children, who helped in production; now one of his sons works as part of the engineering group.
Jaeger has spent much of his life working in agriculture in one form or another. “I enjoyed the work and took pride in the feeling of having our own business. I always enjoyed experimenting with new things,” says Jaeger. Eventually the farm crisis of the ‘80s, along with significant allergies, forced Jaeger to search elsewhere when building his career. Studying business and computer science at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter propelled him down a path that would lead back to the ag industry. “After college I went back and worked on the farm while trying to find a job in my major. The only jobs I could find were for big companies as a business applications programmer. Sitting behind a desk did not interest me. After six months, I decided to go back to college to work on an electronic engineering technology degree at Mankato State,” says Jaeger.
This led to a position at a scale company in Fairmont called Weigh-Tronix. This job allowed Jaeger to develop products for both agricultural and industrial markets. It was just what he was looking for and was close enough that he could continue to help out on the farm. As a programmer, Jaeger was able to learn on the job and develop useful skills that would one day allow him to start his own company. While there, he developed a number of great professional relationships, with four of them now directly involved in his current business. Product development, budgeting, costing, project management and production were all nurtured in the early stages of his career at Weigh-Tronix. “The owner of Weigh-Tronix had started the company from nothing. It originated from his patenting of The Weigh Bar, a means of measuring load, using a machined round bar of steel with precisely placed strain gauges. The idea of someday being able to have my own business, even one-tenth that size, was planted,” says Jaeger. After the company was sold to a larger holding company, Jaeger eventually went to work for a new startup company in Mankato called Blue Earth Research. As the engineering manager, Jaeger headed its development of ventilation controls for livestock facilities. The company was small, with about eight employees, but grew to more than 20. Two of them were previous Weigh-Tronix employees, one being his former boss who had first hired him. The business was quickly bought out, at which time Jaeger and the previous owner decided to start a company of their own.
On July 1, 2001, Novonix Corporation was formed—the beginning of what would become HerdStar. The two rented office space in the back of a bank and went to work designing a new product for controlling heat lamps and mats for swine and farrowing rooms. “Having worked closely with dealers and customers for the past five years, I knew there was nothing on the market similar to it and understood the need and opportunity for such a product. We were also fortunate to have a couple of local swine operators who we could share our ideas with. They helped us define our product and also pointed out some additional benefits we were not aware of at the time,” says Jaeger.
Like any fledgling business, finances were an issue in the early days of the operation. “We had no income, but we continued to spend money on the business and the development of the product with everything coming out of personal funds. The business was my life and, if it was to succeed, we needed to have something to sell. The concern was once we developed the product, how were we going to sell it? Who would buy a product from a two-man show? The product had to be low cost to overcome any objection due to cost, as well as being reliable. Any initial product failures would be very hard to overcome,” says Jaeger. Picking up engineering contracts helped them to make enough money to keep their dreams alive. “Our largest contract job was with a company called HerdStar. They contracted us to design and develop a swine sorting scale. Controlling pneumatic gates, the sorter would capture a pig and record its weight. Based on weight, it would use programming to sort pigs into appropriate food courts. When the pigs were ready to be sold, the sorter could be programmed to sort a number of pigs within a programmed weight range into a sale pen. This project continued to evolve into developing a complete remote monitoring system that included radios and communication gateways that took the data from the scale and put it in the Cloud. This was way before remote monitoring and cloud-based systems were popular,” says Jaeger.
One of Jaeger’s many talents is identifying a need and finding a way to meet that need for his customers. In Jaeger’s opinion, “Labor continues to be a big issue for the livestock industry. It is getting harder to find people willing to work in a livestock facility, and especially hard to find someone with the background or education in livestock production. More producers are looking for remote monitoring of livestock health and the barn environment. Our BinTrac vision (cloud-based monitoring solution) helps to solve this concern. We can provide accurate feed consumption to alert on possible animal health issues and automate just-in-time feed deliveries. We also partner with industry-leading software solution providers that manage the broiler chicken supply chain from egg hatching to individual chicken pieces on the grocery store shelf. The software company’s data solution provides analytics and machine learning from a number of data points. This includes our BinTrac data to monitor bird feed consumption, health, estimated bird weight and size based on total consumption and bird genetics.”
Much of their work during this time would revolutionize the ag industry, developing products that made it easier on livestock growers. MicroZone was awarded one of the best new products of the year at the World Pork Expo in 2006. Two years later, its BinTrac product took home the same prestigious honor. “We had begun selling our MicroZone product, which is a heat lamp control for farrowing facilities. We developed it and started selling it labeled under our Novonix name. It controls heat lamps or heat mats in a swine farrowing building. When piglets are first born, they lack the body fat to stay warm. Their natural instinct is to lay next to the mother, but this often results in the mother laying on them and crushing them. A heat lamp or mat is used to keep the piglets warm and away from the mother when resting. As the piglets get older, less heat is needed, and operators would manually raise the heat lamps. Our system regulates the power to the heat lamps to maintain a comfortable micro-environment for the piglets. It ramps the power based on the piglet’s age and also adjusts the power based on the room temperature. Our system has been proven to reduce energy consumption by up to 40 percent, together with reducing piglet mortality due to lay-ons,” says Jaeger. It is estimated that the technology saves an average producer approximately $20,000 annually on electrical costs for a 2,400-head facility. “We have worked with a number of the large power companies that now recognize our product as a power-savings device. Customers can thus apply for rebates when buying our MicroZone system. This has been a very stable and reliable product for us, which has helped make it successful. Farrowing facilities have high levels of biosecurity, which does not allow easy access to our product. It needs to be dependable and simple to operate and maintain. We have estimated that we are controlling heat lamps or mats for well over 2 million sows, with all the large integrators using it,” says Jaeger.
“We also started the development of a bin weighing system, which I had always hoped to develop following my years at Weigh-Tronix. I knew the systems currently being sold for weighing bins were not reliable and difficult to install on existing bins. I saw a big opportunity if we could come up with a reliable product that could easily be retrofitted to existing bins, as there were many livestock barns without scales. I knew that growers did not like climbing bins and calling in feed orders, but this was not enough to justify the cost. I quickly learned that in order to sell the product, I would need to find more value for the customer. Our best way of doing this was to collect data from our bin scales. The remote monitoring system we had developed for our sorter was easily adopted to our bin scale system. I knew our bracket assembly was unique and if I was going to apply for a patent on it, I had to do it before I started selling it. As with any patent, if you start selling it publicly, it is then recognized as being in the public domain and no longer patentable. I filed for the patent, again investing more money into something I wasn’t sure I could sell. Cash continued to be an issue, and having a lot of continuity between the sorter we developed for HerdStar and our bin weighing system, we decided to merge businesses,” says Jaeger.
The company’s BinTrac and MicroZone product lines are now the most popular and best-selling of what the Mankato-based company has to offer. The BinTrac product line is used to monitor inventory in a hopper style bin or silo. Their patented bracket assembly is easily connected to a customer’s existing bins. A reasonable price point and easy installation make it a no-brainer for the consumer when making a decision to purchase such technology. “When our bin scale is combined with our remote monitoring, customers use our system for vendor managed inventory. This is when a supplier of material remotely monitors their customers’ inventory to ensure each customer is always adequately supplied, instead of the customer needing to order it when they get low,” states Jaeger. HerdStar currently sells through a dealer network that now exceeds 50 U.S. dealers and over 10 internationally. The larger dealers have distribution worldwide. They currently have installations in about 25 different countries and estimate there are over 17,500 systems installed around the globe. Selling internationally is exciting and a great reward for those working at HerdStar, while often receiving compliments on the reliability of their products and requests to purchase more equipment.
HerdStar’s willingness to cater to individual customer needs has helped it make some of the most reliable products on the market today. “In many cases, we are dealing with a very harsh environment. We are exposed to all weather conditions and everything that comes with a livestock facility. Many of the locations where these livestock facilities are built are very rural and as far away from the general public as possible. This means they are at the end of a power line and can have fluctuating power. They are in the flatlands of Oklahoma, where a bin is the highest point and acts as a lightning rod or in the hills of Arkansas where cellular coverage is poor. Much of the new technology assumes a good internet connection, but that is not always the case for many of our installations. We commonly utilize cellular as a means for transferring data to our cloud solutions, but we customize our hardware and software to deal with weak signals and intermittent connections,” says Jaeger.
“We feel being global is necessary to growing our business, but it does have its challenges. Support is always one of our biggest concerns. Before we ship product into another country, we need to identify a trustworthy dealer who will sell, support, and service our product. Dealing with language and time zone differences adds to these challenges. Another added expense before we can even ship into some of these countries is product certification requirements. Many countries do not recognize our UL safety certification and require their own certification. Testing and evaluating our products to these other countries standards is costly,” says Jaeger.
Patents have played a big role in the success of HerdStar over the years. The company holds a number of patents on its unique products and technology that are now considered industry standards. Jaeger says, “It is always exciting whenever one of our new patents is issued. We currently have patents for every one of our main product lines: Sorting Scale, MicroZone, and BinTrac. We have patents in the U.S., Canada, China, and South Korea. HerdStar designed and developed unique features into each of these products that we felt were marketable and created a distinct advantage over competition. There have been a few occasions where competition has started infringing on our patents and we have been able to successfully defend them and work out a favorable business arrangement.”
The early years were difficult for Jaeger and his staff, with putting in long hours and investing so much of their time, energy and resources into a company and products they believed in. “It was difficult starting a business and maintaining a personal life. My business was my life and still is today, but maybe to a lesser degree. I see my employees as part of my family. As with many businesses, we spend a lot of time together. The first 10 years of the business were very difficult, as I was working all the time. Luckily, I had a supportive family. I have a great committed group that takes ownership in the business and wants to see us succeed,” says Jaeger. Along with a top-notch team, Jaeger has guided HerdStar toward an even brighter global future. “I like the saying, ‘Failure is not the opposite of success; stagnation is.’ In the next five to 10 years, I hope to see continued sales growth as we partner with more international distributors and plan to expand into more industrial niche markets that fit our BinTrac line. We strongly feel that to grow our business we need to be global and diversified. We have diversification between the different livestock sectors we sell into domestically, but going globally also provides us diversification,” says Jaeger.
Photography by Kristofer Kathmann