February 10, 2022

Weigh to go: the NSW cattle farmer focused on invention

Optiweigh founder Bill Mitchell developed a machine that improved his own beef production operations. Now cattle farmers are knocking down his door.

In one way or another, Bill Mitchell has always had an eye on the future of farming. A varied career saw him study for a science degree before moving to trade agricultural commodities and derivatives. And for the past 25 years, Bill has dedicated himself to running a beef production business near Armidale, in northern NSW, with his family.

Throughout that time, his solid background in the science of animal and land management, the business of agriculture and some strong maths skills have helped Bill keep a sharp focus on optimisation and improvement.

It’s also helped him invent the Optiweigh.

As Bill describes the genesis of Optiweigh, a “lightbulb moment” led him to realise how incredibly useful an automated in-paddock weighing system would be, creating, he says, “enormous potential to improve production efficiency and production outcomes”.

Bringing plate to paddock

An idea is one thing; putting a market-ready solution together took years of experience, a diverse skillset, an innovator’s can-do mentality, plenty of elbow grease and a lot of trial and error.

Ultimately, Bill learnt that the most effective method of in-paddock weighing lay in attracting a cow to a static front-foot plate, rather than weighing systems that rely on making the animals walk over a platform one by one – or mustering the whole herd into the yard for weighing.

“I wondered if the two-feet weight had a good correlation to whole-body weight. And so I did some testing at home here and found that it did. And then I thought, wait a minute, this could really be something.

“Because the only alternative is to muster all the cattle, take them all the way to the yards, put them through the race and weigh them individually. An Optiweigh that only weighs part of the cattle, and a sample of the mob, can actually do just as good a job at monitoring mob weight and rate of gain, just by towing it to the paddock and leaving it there.

“This is the first time, as far as I could tell, that front-foot weighing had been used in a pasture situation.”

The maths in weight

But to get there, Bill had to build a series of prototype weighing units while also developing an algorithm to determine whole body weight using just the front of the animal. Multiple universities and research bodies have validated the accuracy of his method.

The Optiweigh system was rigorously tested on his own backgrounding and finishing operation, where the impacts were felt in the form of quicker production, better decision-making and improved turnoff weights.

“One of the things that we’ve done on our farm is, just by having better knowledge of what the cattle weigh, and how

their weight gain is going … effectively make better marketing decisions that improve our returns.”

The resulting units combine weigh scales with a lick block, as well as a solar system, battery and connectivity functionality to transmit the captured data. Farmers can manage their data hands-on, or leave it up to Optiweigh’s software to provide daily updates on average mob weight, daily gains trends and more – all without moving the herd, or even visiting it.

Bill is rightly proud of his invention, but he remains modest about his stroke of genius, and the hard work, that went into it.

“I think I was just lucky. My experience with numbers and relationships, my experience with animals, and the ability to cobble together some off-the-shelf electronics to do my work and research.

“So all of my experience aligned with all of those things to enable me to make something that worked.”

Banking on success

Bill says that innovation is crucial to success for today’s farmer, who’s facing a world of changing markets, demands and environment.

“The main thing I’d say is to make sure you understand the risks, make sure you take risks, but also know how to manage them,” he says.

Having the right financial support is also a big part of staying ahead for agribusinesses.

For Bill, this is where a banker who gets it is vital. “It costs money to innovate, and it’s important that they understand what you’re trying to do and what you’re trying to achieve,” he says.

“We have a really good relationship with NAB. My wife Jacqui and I are both long-term customers, and NAB have been really supportive in growing our farm business, and then extending our business into Optiweigh and all that’s entailed.”

An Optiweigh in every paddock…

Optiweigh has already won the Meat and Livestock Association’s 2021 Producer Innovation Award, but that’s only the beginning of the story for this future-focused company.

Ever the inventor, Bill continues to improve the product, including transitioning to a new satellite service for improved connectivity in remote Australia.

In coming years, expect to see the company publishing research into animal and environmental health in collaboration with scientific institutes, using data gathered from Optiweigh units across the country. Forward-thinking producers are also looking to Optiweigh as a tool to measure and verify the impact of various production systems and inputs.

But for the immediate future, the focus is on scaling up success, getting more Optiweigh units out into paddocks all across Australia and beyond.

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