Smart software mooving the yardstick for farmers
When Shannon Speight and Emma Black crossed paths at an agricultural awards event in 2019, it wasn’t just the start of a beautiful friendship.
It was also the catalyst for Black Box Co, a ground-breaking software solution designed to help beef producers supercharge their operations by harnessing the vast amount of data generated in the cattle industry.
All paths lead to Black Box
With a combined 20 years on the land between them, Shannon and Emma took different paths towards their ultimate meeting of minds that would produce Black Box Co.
Originally from Mount Isa (Kalkadoon and Indjilandji Country) in North West Queensland, Shannon travelled the world with her mining industry parents before working as a jillaroo on a remote Northern Territory cattle property, and practising as a vet.
Meanwhile, Emma grew up on a property in Central Western Queensland, 140 kilometres northwest of Longreach (Iningai, Malintji and Kuunkari Country).
After heading off to boarding school, she studied livestock science and gained practical experience in a variety of roles, from working in abattoirs to helping pastoral producers manage their grazing land, and animal nutrition.
By the time they met at the Zanda McDonald Award, which recognises innovative young Australians working in primary industry, their shared passion and knowledge about the beef industry led them to agree: there had to be a better way to more effectively use the mountain of cattle data generated by pastoralists.
“There was this wealth of data ‘out there’ that producers had collected that was just sitting on their computers or on a USB that they were never able to find the time, or sometimes lacked the skills, to be able to do anything with,” says Shannon.
“We pretty quickly realised we were seeing similar issues right across the beef supply chain and we thought, ‘Someone needs to do something about this’,” says Emma.
An inspired idea
The lightbulb moment for Shannon came while she was coordinating a large-scale genomics project for the University of Queensland, which focused on fertility tracking and developing a DNA test for cattle.
“The project saw me travel across Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia and was one of the main points of inspiration for a business like Black Box to solve the issues that we have with data management in the beef industry.”
After 12 months of development during COVID-19, much of it spent collaborating remotely with a steadily growing team of specialists across the country, the result was a cloud-based software program that crunches raw production data generated along the entire beef supply chain.
“We’ve expanded to work with five pastoral companies; our database has gone from zero to more than 800,000 animals and they’ve got over 12 million data points,” says Emma.
Just as exciting as developing the software has been the reaction of pastoralists when they see its true potential with their own eyes.
“One of the highlights for us is when we take a producer’s data, run it through our system and display it back to them in interactive digital dashboards on an iPad or laptop,” says Emma.
Shannon gives us a real-time demonstration amid a herd of inquisitive cattle on her own 160-hectare property at Ravenshoe (Jirrbal Country), about two hours from Cairns (Gimuy-walubarra yidi Country) in Far North Queensland.
“Their faces light up because, all of a sudden, they’ve gone from using an Excel spreadsheet full of lines of data to a visual platform that allows them to easily identify trends over time, as well as look at current data and make informed decisions,” says Emma.
For an industry that has traditionally relied on a farmer’s own intuition when it comes to such decision making, Robert Hardie, Head of Segment for Agriculture at nbn, says a solution like Black Box Co promises to be a real game-changer.
“We see products like Black Box – which rely on fast internet* to enable producers to connect their data with what they’re seeing on the ground – to be critically important to the way the rest of the industry will grow in the future.”
Helping the industry they love to flourish is one of the reasons Shannon and Emma say they were so thrilled to recently win the Innovate with nbn™ Grants Program category for Agriculture and its associated $10,000 grant – a boost they say will allow them to improve the functionality of Black Box and take the first steps toward expanding overseas.
“It was fantastic news to win the Innovate [with nbn™] grant,” says Emma.
“Black Box Co is enabled by the nbn™ network to be available to producers to allow them to save time, make more informed decisions and boost their productivity.
“We’ve been working on what farmers want, and now we’re going to work on what farmers didn’t even know was possible with their data.”