Farming out the business of internet

11 Feb 2003

For the last two years or so Glanbia has been using the internet to streamline communications with its pig producers.

Piglink, as the system is called, was developed by Dublin-based company Halcyon and provides pig farmers supplying Glanbia processing plants with detailed information about the quality of the pigs, their weight and the money they earn.

“When farmers supply pigs to us they don’t issue an invoice,” explains Adrian Kehoe (pictured), IT manager at Glanbia Meats. “We have an agreed price list based on weight and we pay them accordingly. The day after we receive the pigs, we calculate what we owe them and we issue a certificate detailing the animal’s weight, conformity (fat or lean) and price per kilo.”

The certificate, says Kehoe, contains details of each pig in a load enabling the supplier to see how his animals grade. However, the certificates are sent by post and because of the paper trail involved, a farmer who delivers a load of pigs on a Monday might not get the certificate until Thursday or Friday. What Glanbia has done with Piglink is create a virtual certificate.

“Once the calculations are completed, which is always the day after the animals are delivered, files are uploaded to the web server and they are immediately available to the farmer over the internet,” he says.

According to Kehoe, farmers can also download files for import into spreadsheet programs such as Excel in order to examine trends and there are several simple graphs provided directly on the site showing movements of weight of animals.

“They can see if the animals were overweight or were good lean pigs. They can also see the percentage final meat from the total animal and the objective is to get this as high as possible as the farmer is paid by this weight as opposed to live weight,” he says.

Olan Malone, software development manager at Halcyon, recalls some of the challenges he faced overseeing the development of the system. “The existing system was significantly paper-based and was a bit reversed from the usual business cycle in that the farmers didn’t issue an invoice. Instead, Glanbia produced the invoice on the farmer’s behalf,” he says.

One of the biggest challenges was to ensure that the new system would be compatible with the existing one. “We had to take feeds from existing non-Windows systems. Things such as weight and lean meat content were picked up from sensors in the processing plants in Ruskey, Co Roscommon, Edenderry, Co Offaly and Roscrea, Co Tipperary. All data from those three plants is fed to Ruskey and then sent to the web server, which is in Kilkenny.

“We used SQL [structured query language] Server to interface between the new Piglink system and the legacy systems,” explains Malone. “At the time it was implemented, Glanbia was processing 1.4 million transactions per year, so the system had to be scalable and very robust. We used Windows DNA architecture, which separates the business logic from the application logic to some degree.”

An additional challenge Malone faced was ensuring the system was secure. Individual suppliers should be able to see their own information but no one else’s. But that wasn’t the whole picture. Some farms formed part of a larger group, so while individual farm managers had to have access to their own data, the farm owner would need to be able to see data from multiple farms.

To do this, Halcyon developed its own tools, Easy eCommerce. Not only did this provide security but also allowed a certain degree of customisation. “It effectively allows each user to be presented with their own menu options so that each user’s experience can be unique,” says Malone.

Users could be grouped together for ease of administration. For instance, when Halcyon first set up the system, it grouped farmers according to their processing plant. When users log in therefore, they can see messages intended for themselves as individuals, messages intended for the group, for example early closing for a particular plant, and system-wide messages.

As Malone recalls, the system took three months to develop from the awarding of the contract to delivery. Glanbia was also given several tools for system administration such as assigning producers to groups, deleting accounts and so on. “We also provided training for staff,” says Malone, “but very little was needed. We would be of the opinion that the system is very user-friendly and intuitive.”

Whatever about being user-friendly and intuitive, the system appears to have been a success. So says Pat Field, procurement officer at Glanbia’s Edenderry plant. Prior to the launch of the service, he says, farmers would often ring the plant enquiring about certificates and, according to Field, this was one of the factors that led to Glanbia introducing it. But it’s not just the farmers that have benefited. “I use it a lot myself,” says Field. “If a farmer rings up and says there’s something wrong with a load of pigs, I can call it up on my PC while I’m still on the phone. More often than not I can solve the problem on the spot.”

According to Field, the last year and a half has been spent tweaking the system, making it more user-friendly. “We have it nailed now and we need to put a greater push on it,” he says. While many larger farms are using the system, Field is keen to see smaller farmers sign up. “If we pushed it hard, we could do away with posting certificates,” he concludes.

By David Stewart