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High-tech beef cattle monitoring firm pockets growth funds from U.K. investor

GrowSafe wins investment from U.K.-based Wheatsheaf Group

From a chart on his computer screen at GrowSafe Systems Ltd., co-CEO Camiel Huisma can describe not only how much a certain cow ate today but how quickly it ate and how much it weighs.

The animal he's describing is in Brazil, one in a herd of dozens of nearly identical beef cattle on a ranch more than 9,000 kilometres south of his company's rural headquarters just north of Calgary.

"You see this animal ... just takes tiny little bites, very gently,'' the founder of GrowSafe says, pointing to a yellow dot on the chart representing a single cow. Indicating a purple dot, he adds: "This purple animal takes massive bites.''

"After a while, it's almost like a digital fingerprint or signature. We can recognize these animals on their feeding behaviour and those sometimes correlate to feed efficiency or disease,'' he says.

The agricultural technology company which has grown slowly over the past 26 years is on a hiring and growth binge after winning an investment last month from U.K.-based Wheatsheaf Group, a company created in 2012 to invest in sustainable food and energy initiatives.

Neither GrowSafe nor Wheatsheaf would give a dollar value of the deal but co-CEO Alison Sunstrum says she and Huisma, spouses as well as business partners, will continue to control the company with 50 per cent ownership.

Sunstrum says the company's plan is to increase its employee count from 22 to 29 by year-end while moving to a larger headquarters with more office and manufacturing space, plus access to pasture to test new equipment. Most of its staff are engineers, computer programmers or animal health experts.

The ranch in Brazil uses a GrowSafe system that picks up radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips in the animals' ear tags, then matches each with data from weight sensors in their feed and water supply stations and wirelessly transmits the data via the Internet.

Similar information flows into GrowSafe computers from the United States, Australia, South Africa, Mexico and elsewhere. GrowSafe designs its own feeding stations, hardware and software but outsources manufacturing to third parties.

Huisma traces GrowSafe's origins to an ostrich-breeding craze that swept through farming communities in North America in the early 1990s.

At its height, a breeding pair of ostriches could fetch $60,000 from a farmer interested in raising such exotic livestock, he says.

The problem was that chicks hatched in Canada and the United States had very high mortality rates. A neighbour who had lost several generations of young birds challenged Huisma to come up with a solution.

Huisma attached RFID chips to the young ostriches' legs and invented a mat to detect the chips and flow the data into a computer. He found that healthy birds were going to the feeding station hundreds of times each day but unhealthy birds were only going dozens of times.

With earlier detection of birds that needed care, veterinarians were able to intervene and survivability increased, Huisma says, adding that he sold several systems before the collapse of the ostrich market in the mid-90s. He then switched to courting the cattle industry.

Sunstrum, then a Winnipeg businesswoman, discovered GrowSafe in 1999 as an investor. She says she was so impressed with Huisma's data-collecting technology that she put $100,000 into the company _ she jokes that she had to join to make sure that she got her money back.

The couple, both 59, worked from a garage for the first few years and hired their first employee in 2003.

Sunstrum says the company has grown revenue since 2000 at an average rate of 25 per cent per year and has always been profitable, though she wouldn't give revenue figures.

John Basarab, a beef research scientist at Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, is a big fan of GrowSafe, pointing out that he bought one of its first systems in 1998 for a research facility in Lacombe, Alta.

Basarab says GrowSafe products are now considered a "basic tool'' for research into how efficiently individual animals can turn pounds of feed into pounds of steaks—critical to making choices about which animals to breed to produce superior calves.

"Fifty to 75 per cent of the cost of production for beef cattle is in feed,'' he says. "If you can reduce those feed costs, that will make you more profitable.''

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