Business: DietDecoder

Team: Cynthia Northcote (Director) and Emily House (CTO)

HQ: New Plymouth

What products, services, solutions or technology have you developed? 

We are what we eat and the same goes for our livestock.

Developed in the lush countryside of eastern Taranaki, DietDecoder is the result of 25 years of on-farm experience in improving animal health and performance. A unique software tool, DietDecoder analyses pastures for mineral content to rationalise nutrient use and empower farmers to make informed decisions on-farm in order to achieve optimal animal performance and efficiency.

In 2009, the late veterinarian Patrick Poletti identified a knowledge gap in the industry – we knew how much (quantity) we were feeding our animals but there wasn’t readily available information on exactly what (quality) we were feeding in relation to the mineral composition of the grass and soil. Pat noticed that this lack of understanding was affecting animal health and performance and began looking for a solution, ultimately forming the model behind the DietDecoder.

Fast forward to 2020 and myself and cofounder Emily House secured Callaghan funding to capture the model in an easy-use online platform. The analysis process generates easy-read reports designed to educate both advisor and farmer and support practical application on farm. By accurately assessing the nutritional needs at a herd/flock level and including this information in daily management decisions, DietDecoder takes grass-based livestock farming to a whole new level, leading to enhanced animal wellbeing and improved farm profitability.


Livestock wastage is costing the New Zealand livestock industry $1.5 billion annually in lost earnings as productive farm animals are being slaughtered prematurely due to infertility and disease. But up to 50% of these cases could be prevented through better nutrition.

One of the greatest challenges for vets and farmers alike is low stock performance and ongoing health issues and there has been no easy way to connect pasture nutrition to animal health outcomes on individual sheep, beef and dairy farms.

DietDecoder is designed to fill the gap where a grass-based herd or a flock is generally presenting as healthy but isn’t performing to a farmer’s expectations – it steps in when diagnoses, e.g blood and tissue samples taken by vets come back normal, but a performance or health problem still isn’t solved.

DietDecoder is non-invasive (as it uses grass and soil samples, not blood or tissue from the animal) and takes a whole herd or flock approach, instead of focusing on the individual animal. By identifying the link between the mineral component of the pasture diet and how it directly affects animal performance, we can support farmers and vets to make informed decisions on how they manage livestock nutrition.

Additionally, in New Zealand, agriculture contributes almost 50% of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), with the majority of this coming from grazed pasture-based livestock production systems. Modelling estimates that strategies to improve animal efficiency and understanding the pasture diets could reduce these livestock related GHG emissions by 10%. The DietDecoder can provide this insight.

Farmers across New Zealand who had early access to DietDecoder during the development and roll-out phase have reported remarkable improvements in livestock health, growth rates, and overall productivity through applying recommendations from DietDecoder – the majority have averaged 10:1 return on investment from improved animal performance and product savings.

Who and where are your target customers?

There are currently approximately 34,000 sheep, beef and dairy farms across New Zealand who are serviced by over 1000 large animal vets. Initially our work targeted farmer customers, however after a 6-month market validation exercise with farm consultants in 2022, we pivoted to begin focusing on the veterinary industry as our preferred customer. The DietDecoder allows clinical veterinary practitioners to increase their value for time spent on farm, support the use of preventative health measures and gives them greater assurance in the accuracy of their dietary advice.

The nature of the DietDecoder model means that it can be applied globally to pasture-fed livestock farm systems and can show leadership in this area based on New Zealand’s experience in grass fed livestock systems.

How and when did you first come up with the idea for your business?

The model that sits behind the DietDecoder was developed by my late husband and veterinarian Patrick Poletti while we were sheep farming in the Taranaki hill country over 20 years ago.

DietDecoder team: Cynthia Northcote (left) and Emily House.

Starting out, with Pat’s vet background and my agricultural qualifications and experience, we thought we had this farming thing ‘wired’ – how wrong we were! We could grow healthy looking ewes, but we really struggled to get them in lamb. In fact, as their weights increased to a respectable 60kg, the scanning percentage dropped to a miserable 100%.

Through sampling the grass and analysing the results that came back from the lab we identified a selenium, copper, cobalt and iodine insufficiency which hadn’t shown up in the standard blood and liver diagnostics. This is what we had been looking for and we could finally stop wondering what was missing and do something about it.

Not only did scanning lift to over 160%, excitingly our wastage numbers reduced dramatically. While the national average scanning to docking loss is 19%, our loss repeatedly averaged 11% with nil shepherding. Encouraged by our own on-farm success, Pat tackled the thorny issue of chronic high empty rates in dairy herds, and began seeing promising results from the same process, planting the seed for a model that could be used by any livestock farm, anywhere.

What are three things about your business that you are proud of?

  • Since DietDecoder’s conception we have always tried to challenge the status quo. The agriculture industry sets KPI targets but continually accepts lesser performance. Our goal has been to help farmers achieve these targets in a sustainable way and we are proud of our ability to find a way to solve on-farm problems as they occur. For example, farmers achieving milk fever free results over calving (no ‘down cows’) is something we are particularly proud of.
  • We are proud of our high level of ethical integrity and have remained true to the reason we began our business – to improve both farmer and animal health and well-being. We are driven by this passion to make a positive difference.
  • We wanted to empower farmers. We have a terrific network of champion farmers and as farmers ourselves, we understand how difficult improving performance can be if you don’t have the right information.

How do you market your business and what advice do you have for others around marketing?

Having been involved in the agriculture industry for the majority of our working careers, we have built up a strong network of connections and have capitalised on this in the early days of our business. From there we have marketed through editorials in local papers, word-of-mouth and exhibiting at Fieldays and other expos. While this achieved organic growth, the need for partnerships and collaboration with existing industry players was critical once the software was built for us to scale.

One mistake we made was not investing more into marketing early and I would recommend others do far more than we have!

The DietDecoder™ is applicable to beef, sheep and dairy farms. [Photo: Angela Mulligan]

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in building your business so far?

Sharing our story in a way to access funding between the stages of research and development and scaling our offering has been one of our biggest challenges – while we know what our product can do, communicating the value of a complex (but not necessarily complicated solution) has been tricky, especially as our target customer evolved over the years.

The DietDecoder addresses the root causes of problems and isn’t a silver bullet approach so takes time to come to fruition – investing in sustainable solutions needs some patience and a long-term view.

What is the biggest entrepreneur lesson you would like to share with other Kiwis thinking of starting their own business?

As I mentioned earlier, make sure you invest in marketing. It’s incredibly valuable, especially early on to raise awareness of what you’re offering.

Additionally, acknowledge what your strengths and weaknesses are early on and don’t assume you can do everything by yourself – if you’re not a marketer or strong communicator, find someone who can support this area to get it right the first time. Identify the people you need on board early.

Kia kaha, have courage, celebrate the highs and look after your team and yourself on the lows. It’s a wild ride!

Story created in partnership with Venture Taranaki.

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