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Eye in the sky: Drones help manage the herd

Devices better for observing livestock rather than as ‘a flying border collie,’ scientist says.

5 Min Read
Drones have improved tremendously in the past 10 years. They now have automated take-off and landing capability, as well as a return-to-home feature.John Church

An overhead view can be useful to locate missing cattle or to check a fence or water source in a pasture, especially when it can be accomplished much faster than riding or driving out there. 

It’s also useful for monitoring cattle—checking the calving pasture or getting a closer “look” to determine whether an animal is sick and/or has elevated body temperature.  

Some stockmen are utilizing drones with on-board cameras that take high quality photos and videos that can be used for many purposes, including advertising and marketing cattle, and drones equipped with sensors and other new technologies.

John Church, Associate Professor (Natural Resource Sciences Department, Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, British Columbia) is the Regional Innovation Chair in cattle industry sustainability and his job is to research new techniques and new technology to make ranching more sustainable. 

He first started using drones 10 years ago when he realized what a great tool this could be in day-to-day operation when a rancher wants to look at something over the far ridge or in a group of trees, or any place he can’t access readily or immediately. 

Technology improved

Drones have improved tremendously in the past 10 years.  They now have automated take-off and landing capability, as well as a return-to-home feature. 

“They are smart enough to land themselves and also portable.  Some can fold down and fit into a saddlebag,” said Church.  The newer drones have better batteries and longer flight times.  You can also get multiple batteries.  “If we have a big research project, we take a portable generator along to keep the batteries going, and can have drones in the air all day.”  There are some small, lightweight drones with great battery life and can fly for 30 minutes (more than 6 miles).  

Many drones now have smart controllers with screens. 

“Originally we hooked them up to our phones, but in bright sunlight the phone screens are hard to see,” Church said. “Now there are ultra-bright screens on the drone controller, but you can still connect your phone or android to the controller if you wish.”

Drones can also serve as platforms for many types of sensors.  “We’ve been putting thermal cameras on drones to find animals under trees.  We can also use them to read ear tags, like RF2 ultra-high frequency cattle ear tags.  We’ve been able to pick up signals from RFID ear tags 5 miles away using solar-powered ear tags,” said Church.

“A lot of the new drones can do this.  If I know the GPS coordinates I can program that into the drone and it can fly right to the cow.  Earlier I was excited about using drones to find lost cows, but now I don’t have to find them; I already know where they are, with the GPS.  And if the ear tag hasn’t moved for a few hours we can check on that animal and see if there is something wrong,” he said.

“We are focused now on two different types of tags—satellite-enabled GPS tags, and similar tags using a GPS tracker where you set up a base station on the ranch to relay the GPS signal to the base station, and then to cellular networks.  We can get that information (GPS positions) easily into the Cloud. You can know where your cow is, and eventually we’ll be able to receive temperature information and also activity levels—to see if the animals are being chased by a predator,” he said.

“The zoom capabilities of thermal images have greatly improved, even at high altitudes.  In the future we’ll be able to ‘weigh’ cattle with drones, with imaging software.  You can have the drone to circle around the selected animal and film it.  From that we’ll be able to construct a 3D model and get a good weight estimation,” he said.

Checking livestock

“We can also measure heat stress and get respiration rate and body temperature.  I am working with a company that has sophisticated boluses that can be put into cattle.  These can provide movement activity or internal body temperature, and can tell if the cow is in heat, etc.  In future we may be able to also detect heart rate.  With these boluses we can upload all the data to the drone,” said Church.

“I am impressed with what I’ve seen from a company called OneCup AI that can do video image analysis.  There are algorithms that can detect sickness just by analyzing the image on video, using machine learning and artificial intelligence.  You don’t even need to watch the video.  It will automatically flag animals you should look at,” he said.

Last November Church gave a workshop in Sun Valley, Idaho for the Idaho Cattleman’s Association at their annual meeting.  “Some of those ranchers are already using drones, and told me about novel ways they are using them.  Some use drones to check fence lines before turning cattle into a big pasture, for instance,” said Church.

Every ranch has unique situations; a rancher may find specific uses for a drone that will be helpful.  Some people are using drones to round up cattle or move cattle.  “It is very effective; you just lower the drone to where the cattle can feel the prop wash, and they move away from it,” he said. 

“I don’t like using a drone that way, however.  If you start moving cows with a drone they begin to fear it, and as soon as they hear one they run away.  If you use drones just to observe cattle, they get accustomed to it.  I can get very close without alarming them and get a good view.  I prefer to use drones as an observational tool, rather than as a flying border collie, but producers can decide how they want to use these tools.” 

If you use a drone for checking and monitoring cattle, take a little time to get them used to it.  “We gradually habituate them to it.  The first time we fly over them the cattle tend to move away, but if you don’t herd them with it, they quickly accept it.  They realize it won’t hurt them.”  The drone makes a continuous hum that doesn’t seem to startle them.  The larger drones actually disturb cattle less because they don’t have the high-pitched noise of a smaller one, and they get used to it quickly.

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