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The eye in the sky is watching your cows

The eye in the sky is watching your cows

In the mid-’70s, as a research scientist at the Melfort Research Station, I helped Saskatchewan Agriculture evaluate the first button-type electronic ear tags on our cows at the Pathlow pasture research project. At the time, I also had a big satellite remote sensing project to monitor pasture productivity. I would tell my colleagues that our goal was to develop a system whereby I could sit in my office back in Melfort and monitor and remotely move the cows to different paddocks. They all laughed, but now it is a reality!

There are all sorts of new precision technologies for managing grain farms, and now there are some exciting innovations on the horizon for managing grazing operations. Recently, Saskatoon was host to over 500 rangeland researchers and managers from 48 different countries at the International Rangeland Congress. The event featured over 500 presentations on all sorts of topics involving rangeland management. With the theme of “Managing the World’s Rangelands and Wild Lands in a HighTech World” it provided a forum for some very interesting capabilities of computers, cellphones, Internet and satellite remote sensing for enhanced rangeland management.

Of particular interest is work coming out of Australia where they have developed a system of managing their huge grazing leases remotely from their station or ranch office. Ed Charmley, former beef and pasture research scientist with Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada, Nappan, Nova Scotia is now one of the lead scientists with the precision farming group at the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) Lansdown Pasture Research Station in Queensland, Australia.

“We are working with partners in Queensland to develop technologies that can monitor their ranches. The Digital Homestead project is a one-stop-shop online dashboard or computer app to enable farmers to access information about their farms remotely via satellite and integrate it with information from outside the farm, all with the aim of improving their decisions. We can now do in-field weighing of livestock, monitor their body conditions remotely, find their locations and assess their grazing behaviour by using new solar-powered electronic collars,” explained Charmley.

These systems operate on the Cloud, meaning they are Internet based and accessible from anywhere via a login and password. The end goal is to increase the percentage of animals meeting market specifications and optimize their reproductive performance.

Remote weigh stations transit weights to a stockman's computer via the Cloud.
Remote weigh stations transit weights to a stockman's computer via the Cloud. photo: CSIRO

At remote weighing stations and watering sites cattle can be sorted or held in holding pens automatically to eventually be moved to other paddocks or held for transport.

Data on climate, soil, vegetation as well as animal behaviour will help farmers and land managers estimate which regions of their farms may be undergrazed or overgrazed.

“The information presented on their cellphone or laptop can be tailored to individual needs and preferences. The managers can see real-time information on their property and livestock at a glance. They can know where cattle are, explore trends in cattle weight, see how much water is in tanks and browse climate variables from on farm sensors,” said Charmley.

Using satellite technology, the Australian scientists have helped develop a prototype, animal-friendly virtual fencing (VF) system for cattle that can be used to confine animals without using fixed fences.

With virtual fencing, boundaries are drawn entirely by global positioning satellite (GPS) and exist only as a line on a computer. No wires or fixed transmitters are used. The animals wear solar-powered collars containing software that identifies where they are and emit a sound when they approach the virtual fence. The sound replaces the visual cue of a conventional electric fence that cows learn to avoid.

Cattle need to be trained to adapt to the virtual fences. When fully developed and commercialized this technology would be of great benefit to keeping cattle out of environmentally sensitive areas such as watersheds and areas with endangered species.

“I think at present the first application will be for smaller herds in more intensive systems where all animals can be VF collared, leading to better, cheaper equipment that can then be rolled out under more extensive systems,” says Charmley. “When you consider the cost of real fencing — and the fact these get destroyed in fires and floods in Australia — then the cost of equipping every animal, (even in large herds), looks a lot more attractive.”

Back in North America, Dean Anderson, a retired research animal scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Jornada Experimental Range station, developed a Global Navigation Satellite System-based Directional Virtual Fencing (DVF) system that could be used to hold or move or gather free-ranging cattle on open range. Anderson is continuing his involvement in virtual fencing research with a private company that expects to bring a commercial product to market in the near future.

“So you have the problem of non-uniform utilization of the landscape, with some places that are overutilized and other places that are underutilized,” says Anderson.

“We have used all sorts of methods to try to affect distribution including fencing, developing drinking water sites in a new location, putting supplemental feed in different locations, changing the times you put out feed, putting in artificial shade, so that animals would move to that location.

“You can see how, many times as a manager, you might actually know what to do to optimize your utilization, but economics and time prevent it from happening. Which means your cows are all in the wrong place.

“My concept of virtual fencing was to have a conventional wire perimeter fence around your property. But, internally, you don’t have fences. You program ‘electronic’ polygons, based upon the current year’s pattern of rainfall, pattern of poisonous weed growth, pattern of endangered species growth, and whatever other variables will affect your current year’s management decisions. Then you can use the virtual polygon to either include or exclude animals from areas on the landscape that you want to manage with scalpel-like precision,” he says.

“If you need to move your herd to this ‘better location,’ instead of having to build a fence or take the time and manpower to gather your cows, you would simply move the virtual fence.”

Previous research in Australia and New Mexico, has not determined what per cent of a herd needs to be fitted with an electronic collar for acceptable control in all landscapes or how best to generate and store power to keep the electronics working for a long time.

Though it will never completely replace conventional fencing, virtual fencing has the potential to manage free-ranging livestock over a landscape in real time.

“We know that electronics and satellite imagery are not infallible and need to be backed up by ‘eyes’ on the grounds,” adds Anderson.

At Thompson River University (TRU) in Kamloops, B.C., Dr. John Church, associate professor in natural resource science in partnership with researcher Glen Kathler from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) at Calgary, are using drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to track cattle. The drones are equipped with a thermal camera, and a new longer range passive ultra-high frequency (UHF) radio-frequency identification RFID reader. UHF cattle ear tags, several brands of which are available on the market, will be used with the drone program being developed by SAIT to locate and identify cattle on the range.

SAIT is developing a new directional antenna for a thermally equipped UAV so it can locate and monitor cattle fitted with UHF ear tags grazing B.C.’s forested rangelands from the air. The same UAV will be able to assess plant health and biomass on these range pastures with a near-infrared multi-spectral camera. The ultimate goal is to time the movement of the cattle to better manage the pastures while keeping tabs on cattle returning off of Crown range in the fall.

“My goal is to use thermal cameras in the drones to locate cattle from the air — even hidden beneath a forest canopy. In the future I see drones that will be able to target individual weeds and spray a treatment targeting each one, not an entire pasture.”

“The drones can also be used to herd cattle,” Church adds, “but for now, drones are better used for monitoring the herd than moving it.”

Eventually by using drones to follow RFID signals ranchers will be able to track down lost cattle and even discover whether an animal has been killed by a predator.

Back on the ground SAIT’s new prototype UHF-RFID tag system allows ranchers and feedlots to maintain timely, accurate data on a herd by reading whole groups of cattle in a matter of minutes as they pass through an archway, a significant improvement on previous low-frequency (LF) RFID tags that require cattle to be put through a chute and individually scanned. They can also be tracked as they are being transferred by placing UHF RFID readers on cattle liners, at auction marts, and upon arrival at packing plants, says Kathler.

About the author


Duane McCartney is a retired forage-beef systems research scientist at Lacombe, Alta.



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