Drones, smart ear tags & cameras: The case for using technology in ranching

Are you ready for the invasion of the drones?

September 1, 2016

7 Min Read
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Technology is rapidly advancing the cattle business. The capability now exists for specialized ear tags and unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs or drones, to remotely check on cattle and monitor their health, and wireless cameras with long-range capability can notify a beef producer by cell phone that a cow has calved or that someone has pulled onto the property.

“Five years ago, no one had even heard of a UAV, other than drones used by the military,” says Pete Cunningham with Ag Eagle and Cunningham Ag Services in Ansley, Neb. “There has been a lot of progress since then, and especially in the last year. There is no limit in what data these drones can gather. Producers just need to decide what data they want,” he says.

Cunningham sees drones becoming part of everyday cattle management, if producers are willing to embrace this technology. “The UAV or drones are a tool to carry a sensor of some type,” he explains. “These sensors can be of any endless possibility from precision livestock management to locating an animal. It can change how we manage and identify sick and under-performing individuals even sooner than a pen rider or by horseback in a pasture. Whatever your program is, this technology will only make that better,” he says.

Feedlot drone photo

If a farmer/feeder has 1,000 head of cattle in a feedlot, he may be the pen rider as well as the feed truck driver, Cunningham continues. “If there is a snowstorm, he may have to concentrate on feeding the cattle and other chores and let the pen checking go. The UAV can check the cattle for him, and issue alerts. It is capable to catching an outbreak of sickness or even alerting you to a single animal that doesn’t show its normal signs of activity. It allows you to handle a couple head and leave the other 998 alone,” he says.

Cunningham encourages cattle producers to experiment with this new technology. “It may start out as a toy until you can figure out how to make it usable in the operation,” he says. “You can experiment with it at a relatively low cost. Until you determine how you want to use it, I wouldn’t recommend starting with a high-end device,” he states.

Under new FAA regulations implemented in August, persons who want to fly a drone must be at least 16 years old and be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration. They must also hold either a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating, or be under the direct supervision of a person who does. To qualify for a remote pilot certificate, a person must demonstrate aeronautical knowledge by either passing an initial aeronautical test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center or hold a part 61 pilot certificate, according to the FAA regulations for using a drone.

Cunningham believes small producers can even benefit from using drones. “The advantage of being a smaller operator is having the time to evaluate all the data these drones can provide to you, and determining how to implement it,” he explains. “The drones have the capability of gathering more information than some operations have time to evaluate.”

Enter smart ear tags

Andrew Uden with Quantified Ag in Lincoln, Neb., says the development of a biometric-sensing ear tag, when combined with a data analysis tool set, can improve traceability in the whole system and change big data’s role in precision beef production. “In the livestock business, as we utilize biometric readers, smart ear tags, and better technology with individual animals, we can actually manage at that level,” he says.

“We no longer have to pull an entire pen of cattle to treat one individual. We can manage cattle on a head by head basis, which fits very well into what our industry has built from a management perspective. It puts more of the efficiency and cost management structure back into the hands of the producer,” he says.

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This technology can measure biometrics and behavior of animals, verify if an animal was treated for disease and the outcome, and determine if the animal was treated humanely or mistreated, he notes.

What these advancements will require is the development of a reliable network so these products can be used in remote areas. “The problem with this technology is it takes a lot of infrastructure to put in place,” Uden explains. “Our technology steps in to fill some of these gaps by creating a reliable range that animals can be away from the reader. We have a two-mile range on our reader right now,” he notes.

“We are also creating a platform that will take some of these same sensors that monitor inner ear canal temperature, head position and mobility of the animal, and from that we can use this data to create a health picture of the animal at any given time of the day,” he says.

“With that information, the producer can decide if they want to pull and treat that animal. In fact, finding that animal in a pen of cattle is as simple as turning on a light on the ear tag. We have built an ear tag that can basically send and receive data. Doing this gives us options of what we want to change, and turning the light on and off when we are sorting groups of cattle,” he explains.

In the future, Uden says this technology will be able to tell a producer what disease an animal has, and whether or not it should be treated. “This technology will help make the industry more sustainable,” he says.

Smile, you’re on camera

With it becoming more difficult to find good employees, implementing some of this technology can save producers time. Shawn Rosen with RosTech Wireless, based in Montreal, Quebec, says by installing wireless cameras in the calving barn, producers can monitor their pregnant cows from home. “Late at night, when you are calving, instead of traveling back and forth to the barn, you can log on via cell phone or computer monitor and see what is going on there,” he explains. “It puts you right there when the calf is being born, while saving you the time of running back and forth.”

In a country that is becoming less secure all the time, these cameras can also relay a signal that will notify the rancher if someone drives into the yard, Rosen continues. “You can log on and see who is there and what they are doing at any given time,” he notes. “Farmers and ranchers are becoming more of a target because of the vast amount of acreage many of them own. Society has changed. These cameras can send a signal up to a mile. This product is there to protect you,” he states.

“Connectivity is probably one of the most important things about our product,” he continues. The cameras are moving toward a wi-fi system, and work continues to develop cameras that project better images. “We are also developing cameras that can provide auto-track for security purposes. If someone comes onto your property, these cameras can move and track their movement, as well as zoom in on an intruder. It will have the capability to even notify the police, if necessary,” he says.

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