SIOUX FALLS — Growing up on the family farm outside Dimock, Henry Wegehaupt was well aware of the challenges and commitment that come along with raising cattle. He spent the first years of his life helping his family with the regular chores, but after a time, he began thinking that there could be a way to make the job easier.
“Cattle are a 24/7/365 type of operation. It would be nice to give (farmers) the freedom and flexibility to spend more time with family and focus on their managerial role,” Wegehaupt said.
Wegehaupt, 26, is now in the beginning stages of doing just that, with his new company Provender Technologies recently being named the recipient of a $100,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to research and develop an automated cattle-feeding system that would help free up precious time for farmers who are often already stretched to the limit in their responsibilities to their farm.
The 2013 graduate of Parkston High School may have first noticed the need for a new system during his time growing up on the farm, but it began to take shape in earnest when he attended South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City.
“I loved growing up on the farm. I spent a lot of time helping dad with the cattle, but also helping with the field work as well. We were always busy trying to catch up on the farm work,” Wegehaput said. “When I went off to school, that was something that I was familiar with — the need for additional help.”
He looked at advances in modern technology and thought an automated cattle feeding system could take advantage of modern advances in ways that had not yet been applied in the industry.
“Where are the labor-saving technologies? That’s been a focus of farmers, and they’re the ones I’m excited to help, given my background,” Wegehaupt said.
He looked at the options as part of his college senior project, but moved on to a career with a company after graduation, where he remained for two and a half years before he circled back to the idea that had been brewing in the back of his mind for years.
“I needed a senior design project with a focus on power and energy systems. When you look at automating the feeding process, it’s mostly an industrial process,” Wegehaupt said. “It’s turning on motors, turning off motors, hitting target weights and mixing for a set duration.”
He also saw established modern technology that could be implemented into an automation system.
“Precision ag technologies have taken off in the last few years, but mostly for row crops. In the next couple of years, I wouldn’t be surprised to see auto-steer applications being used to deliver feed or facilitate supervised autonomous feeding,” Wegehaupt said.
Wegehaupt approached a mentor to help him with the grant process. He left his job and established Provender Technologies to conduct research and develop applicable methods for his ideas. He was approved for the grant in June, and it became official on Sept. 1. He is now working out of an office space in Sioux Falls, where his studies and research are taking shape.
He has been consulting with agriculture industry experts and farmers, taking the time to listen to their ideas and thoughts as he develops solutions for their various challenges. There is a lot of research to do in these early stages, and the feedback he’s getting from cattle experts is proving invaluable.
“I might go back and do some prototyping on the family farm (in Dimock), but right now, I found a farmer outside of Sioux Falls who has agreed to help with testing and the use of his facilities. Right now, it’s been a lot of conversations with industry experts, with me reaching out and getting their input,” Wegehaupt.
Wegehaupt said his work with the first phase of the USDA grant will be to develop an affordable system for automating the measuring and mixing of feedstuffs. He is building his template around confined cattle installations, which gives him a consistent style to build upon before moving onto other types of operations. Eventually, he wants to work more with continuous flow mixing and improving the uniformity of mixed rations.
He has until April 2021 to present his studies to the USDA. If things go well, he has an opportunity at another larger grant that would allow him to take his ideas and research even further. And while his work is still in the beginning stages, the fact that the USDA chose his proposal for one of their grants indicates that the idea has some potential in the eyes of experts.
“I think it has a lot of potential, and the grant shows there is interest,” Wegehaupt said.
It will take some time, some consulting, some conversations and some trial and error to turn his idea into a reality, but he’s prepared to do the work if it means being able to give back to farmers and allow them more free time and flexibility in their lives. He knows the amount of work they put in in service to their industry, and developing ways to make their chores easier is something Wegehaupt is happy to put the work in for himself.
“I think the more that word gets out and the more people I talk to, I see more opportunity for it every day. Some people don’t see a place for it in their operation, but I assure you the others I talk to are excited to be able to step away from the farm when they need to,” Wegehaupt said. “Maybe they work another job or some other form of off-the-farm employment. If they have the opportunity to use automation to free up their schedule and give them a little more flexibility, that’s worth a lot to them.”