Drones are a relatively inexpensive way to locate cattle in big pastures so you know where to ride and start gathering.
John Church, an associate professor in the natural resource sciences department of Thompson Rivers University at Kamloops, B.C., an area with semi-arid grassland, forested range and many large ranches, says some ranchers in this vast range country hire helicopters to find lost cattle. “It’s expensive, at $1,000 to $1,500 an hour. You could buy a drone for that, and fly the area many times,” says Church.
Church is also the B.C. regional innovation chair in cattle industry sustainability. His job is to bring new technology to the table, to try and make ranching more sustainable. He first started working on drones five years ago when he watched children playing with them in a park. “This is a great way to extend your vision — and a huge benefit to cattle ranchers,” he says.
“If you want to look at what’s over the ridge or in a group of trees, or some other place you can’t access readily or immediately, this is a nice tool. We did tests, out of curiosity, to see how fast you can get across a pasture to look at a water troughs. We had a person on a quad, versus one of my students using a drone. There is no comparison; the drone was so much quicker. It can save time and labour in simple things like checking water troughs, mineral feeders or inspecting fence lines,” he says.
Before you turn cattle out on summer pastures you could send a drone around the fences to see if a tree blew down on the fence over winter, or a herd of elk tore down a section of fence — or if gates were left open by hunters.
“In the past it took a lot of time to check fences, and when you find a problem you need to have the right tools and materials to fix it. If you already checked the fence with a drone, you could go right to the problem and have the proper things for repair. You’d know whether you might need to take a chain saw to get trees off a fence, or some new posts. Twenty minutes of flying time could save hours of travel in rough terrain. Then you’d only have to go to the areas that need repair.
Drones can also come in handy for checking water troughs and gates in remote locations. If a water trough quits working, you could know about it sooner, and go fix it. You can pre-program drones to run a route, such as checking a fence. With a drone, you can check pastures more often or more closely, to find out if there is something unusual, or if the neighbour’s bull is in with your cows.
Some people use a drone as a herder to move cattle up out of riparian areas or to round up or move cattle.
“It is very effective for that purpose; you just lower the drone to where the cattle feel the prop wash, and they move,” says Church. “I don’t like using it that way, however. I’ve found that if you move cows with drones they become afraid of it, and as soon as they hear it they start running from it. If you just use drones to observe cattle, however, they get used to it and it doesn’t bother them,” he says.
“I feel it is better to be able to use drones as an observational tool, rather than as a flying border collie, but each producer can figure out how they want to use it,” Church says. These are two opposite uses and you’d have to choose one or the other. If someone wants them just for herding, however, they are very quick.
If you want to use a drone for checking and monitoring cattle, take a little time to get them used to it, advises Church.
“The first time we fly over they may look up and might move away a little, but if you don’t herd them and nothing happens, they quickly accept it. The next day, they realize it won’t hurt them. The noise is a continuous hum and doesn’t startle them. The larger drones actually disturb cattle less because they don’t have the higher-pitched noise of a smaller one. Cattle seem to get used to the bigger drones very quickly,” explains Church.
Roy Lewis, DVM, of Lewis Farms near Edmonton, and technical services veterinarian with Merck Canada, first used a drone to make promotional videos of bulls on the farm, and was so impressed he recently purchased his own.
“It’s a high-quality over-the-counter drone. There are some bigger commercial drones that can do quite a bit more and carry more weight, but this small one serves our purposes for now. It is very useful for checking cattle and finding missing cattle,” he says.
His niece Jordan Buba used it this spring, calving out cows on pasture. “Our cows that calve in winter are in smaller pens where we can see them easily, but the spring-calving cows are out on 80 acres. They are a little more aloof; they want to be off by themselves when they calve, and the drone allows us to observe them a little closer than if we were walking or driving out there,” says Lewis.
“You can get goggles that show you what the drone is seeing but Jordan just looks at the image on her cell phone. Our cows are freeze branded for ID, which enables us to see the number from a distance — easier to read than an ear tag,” he says.
This is helpful when trying to determine the identity of an animal that is sick, lame, or having a calving problem.
Church uses drones to make teaching videos for his students and for ranchers. It’s a good tool for explaining how to move livestock with low-stress handling techniques. The video can be played back, to show what happens in various situations, the mistakes that are made, etc.
“I am most interested in using a drone for disease detection, or for monitoring calving, to know if something is wrong,” says Lewis. “In a group of cattle that’s moving, you can whip around to the other side of the herd or watch an individual animal; it’s much easier to do that from above.” You can fly it high and monitor the whole herd or drop down and closely monitor one animal, to look at clinical signs and get identification. The drone can zip from one side of the herd to another so it is easy to watch an individual.
“If you saw a cow limping you might suspect foot rot. Then you could go out there prepared to treat it, and have a plan for capturing that animal,” says Lewis.
You can replay the video to scrutinize an animal and try to determine if it is sick or what might be wrong with it. This might help you to make a decision whether to go treat it or just monitor it. The video can show what degree of lameness the animal had today, and you could compare with how lame it was yesterday, to see if it is improving.
“There is also some work being done with thermal cameras that detect heat. You can tell if an animal is getting sick or has a sore foot with heat in it. You need a bigger drone for that, to carry those cameras,” he says. They can detect the body heat of an animal under trees, for instance, if you are looking for cattle.
“We’ve used our drone to watch a cow calving, and observing behaviour. Those videos can be useful to teach vet students. You can get fairly close to a cow with a drone and it doesn’t bother her, whereas if you were out there she would be more wary. You can check on her without her being worried. With drones and with stationary cameras in the calving area, we’ve been able to see cows stealing another cow’s calf. This is crucial to discover, especially in a purebred herd,” he says. The drone can fly by, or hover in one spot if you need it to. The way the cameras pivot, it can give you a very clear image of what you want to look at.
“Drones can save tremendous time checking pastures. Bulls with breeding injuries can be identified and the location noted for removal. There are many uses for drones in food animal production. We have probably just scratched the surface regarding monitoring devices, RFID readers, etc. that may be attached to them. They are limited by the weight they can carry, however,” Lewis says.
“They can provide a recorded image that could be sent for further evaluation by your veterinarian, horticulturist or nutritionist depending on the problem. I frequently look at recorded videos on sick, injured or lame bulls for insurance exams. A video can form a medical record and can be compared to a later video to watch for improvement. This technology is affordable, and if it helps save a calf at calving, identifies a lame bull quicker or finds lost livestock, the payback is fast,” he says.
New technology has potential, including the active RFID tags. Passive RFID tags must be within one or two metres of the reader but active RFID tags could be read from a distance. Instead of having to scan the whole pasture to know where the livestock are, the drone gets high enough to see them, and might be able to read those tags.
“We’re thinking of building an antenna to read RF2 ultra-high-frequency cattle tags. We’ve been able to pick up signals from the new RFID ear tags three to five miles away and have been testing solar-powered ear tags from a company in Utah,” says Church.
“For the future, we are also trying to get some network tags that can talk to each other. This means that if you find one cow, you can find them all, since those tags are all linked together. We can get that information (GPS positions) into the Cloud. You can know where your cow is, and also get temperature information.”
Cameras are now built into the drone. “The image transmission of the video is remarkable,” says Church. “You can view it on your goggles or your iPad or android phone. You can get that signal from well over a mile, and if you have permission (if it’s legal), up to three miles away,” he says.
Most drones have automated take off and landing capability, as well as return-to-home features. “These drones are smart enough to land themselves and are also portable.
The Mavic, for example, can fold down and fit in a saddlebag. The newer drones have decent flight times. You can get well over 20 minutes per flight, and a drone can go a long way in 20 minutes. If you have four to six batteries with you, it can fly a long time. If we have a big project, we’ve taken a portable generator out into the field to keep those batteries going, and kept drones in the air all day long,” Church says.
“Drones can also serve as platforms for other sensors. We put thermal cameras on drones to see how much better we can find animals under trees. DJI now has drones that can carry two cameras at once, but those are a little more expensive. A good drone now, with video capabilities will cost between $1,000 and $2,000, but that is still fairly reasonable if it saves miles and hours,” he says.
“It would be easy to put an accelerometer chip on a drone, to see if the animals are chased by a predator. We are also putting multi-spectral or near-infrared cameras onto drones — the same drones we are using to find lost cattle. We are now mapping flights, to look at large aerial photos (orthomosaics) to map farmers’ fields, like precision agriculture. We can use Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, which enables us to look at the pasture and determine things like proper fertilizer application or water. In the future we are hoping to come up with unique spectral signatures for things like invasive weeds. Maybe we can not only identify noxious weeds (and pinpoint location with GPS co-ordinates) but also send out a second drone, using those co-ordinates, to spray the weeds,” he explains.
“One rancher came up with the idea of using a paint ball gun when checking cattle,” says Lewis. “The person checking cattle could mark one with a paint ball so the people who come out later to treat it would know which one to treat. I don’t know how well that might work, but there are many innovations people will come up with.” As the technology keeps improving and drones become more useful for more things, there are many possibilities.
Purchasing and learning to use a drone
A Chinese company called DJI makes most of the high-quality drones on the market today, with several models. Price for a top-of-the-line drone may be $1,000 to $1,400 but by the time you buy a couple of extra batteries (about $160), a case for it, etc., it will probably be another $500.
“The drone we purchased was very basic, and cost $600,” says Lewis. “Some are much more expensive, but this one takes clear pictures and videos. The price of a drone goes up partly by the quality of the camera. Drones the professionals use are bigger and may cost $10,000 to $20,000. They can go farther and carry a bigger camera and do many different things,” he says.
It takes a little practice to learn how to fly a drone if you are not already used to video games. With the standard drone, the left joystick controls altitude and direction the drone is facing (yaw). The right one controls speed and moving left or right (roll). “When we got our first research funds for drones, we crashed some, learning how to use them,” says Church.
“Those first drones were not very reliable. They have improved. Frank Wang, founder of DJI, is an expert on drones. We have used almost every drone that DJI has come up with. We seldom crash them anymore; most of them now have active collision-avoidance built in. They are smart enough that even if you are a beginner they can keep from flying into a tree or the side of the barn.”
“I think this is a great tool that many ranchers will adopt in the future. The younger generation has grown up with iPads, cell phones, Xbox, etc. I am amazed at how well my students fly! They have incredible muscle memory and don’t even think about the controls. They just think about where they want to go and the drone starts going that direction, whereas I have to consciously think about running the controls.”
The older generation can learn, however. “My uncle is in his 70s and is now flying a drone. It takes some practice to learn how to use it, but there are many resources available now that didn’t exist five years ago.”
“In the near future we’ll see better controllers, and better antennae on the ground that will connect you better to the drone, so you can fly farther. With those you’ll be able to get a drone out at least six miles with a solid connection, providing a very large search window. DJI is coming out with something they call the Tractenna, but you have to make sure you can legally use these longer-range drones,” says Church. Always check the regulations in your own province.
The biggest actual limitation is battery life. The upper end is about 30 minutes, but if there’s wind it may be closer to 20 minutes. The faster you go, the more battery it takes. Even then, you can see a lot in 20 minutes.
“A bigger battery would be more weight,” says Lewis. “You’d have to use it a lot to need a bigger battery.”