AHEAD OF THE HEARD — Using drones in high tech commercial crop production started about 10 years ago and has been growing every year. Drone crop scouting for diseases, pests and nutrient deficiencies is the focus of many companies in the crop production advice business. And for good reason, any threat to high-value crops could cost hundreds of thousands in losses. Drone technology has also become considerably more sophisticated, reliable and precise. In addition, its expanding into not just detection, but in actual precision chemical treatment of affected crops have been saving growers more thousands. This has led to visionaries contemplating the use of drones in livestock production. It’s still a bit early as there must be a reliable electronic connection between the animal and an overhead drone with sensitive detection sensors, but it’s coming and sooner than we may suspect.
Some of the potential was started in Australia where drones are used to herd cattle and sheep on some massive livestock operations. There is a bit of history to that being some of the bigger outfits’ chartered helicopters to roundup cattle on outback ranges that covered hundreds of thousands of acres. So the concept was not new – what changed the game was that operating even the most expensive rotary drone was much much cheaper than hiring a helicopter. It was just a matter of time before some insightful folks started to wonder how this innovative technology could be applied to cattle in North America.
As interesting as herding livestock may be with drones there had to be more uses for this technology to interest livestock operators in this country. The initial use is in counting cattle on ranges. If a producer could send out a drone to count cattle in real time and pinpoint exactly where they are that would be useful, particularly in semi-forested range lands. Big community pasture and range operations would find such information useful too, in managing cattle movement over large areas. A side benefit would be to keep an eye on predators and any recent livestock kills. You can see where pasture riders would see their jobs in danger.
At present, there are reliable infrared sensors that can be used on drones to detect warm-blooded animals and if added to cameras one could actually count and locate cattle in remote areas. But for that sort of service to be successful it needs to provide precise numbers and location for it to be truly valuable to a producer. You may have already guessed that if ear tags could be used to detect cattle and their ID number and connected to GPS technology, a producer would know exactly where his cattle are and if any are missing. That’s where the present research and technology applications seem to be going. The idea is that a new ear tag needs to be invented probably using ultra-high frequency that can reliably be detected by a drone flying at 100 feet above ground.
GPS technology already exists that can automatically program a drone to fly over any contours or obstacles on a grid basis. Probably this would work with rotary drones and not fixed wing types, being they are more flexible and are able to hover over difficult areas if need be. Imagine that instead of spending days locating cattle and hoping to find strays it can all be done in a matter of hours. Lost or isolated sick cattle could be quickly located and a rider sent out to the exact location to deal with the animal – that could be the difference between a live animal and coyote food. Saving just a few head of cattle could pay for the service. I expect this type of drone use will soon be available and one foresees drone entrepreneurs offering to carry out this service on a contractual basis. That would allow for the use of expensive high tech rotary drones that would be too expensive for producers to own themselves.
The precedent for this type of animal tracking has been around for a few years. Government biologists have used tracking collars with bears and other species to locate and manage their movement in national parks. The problem is they involve satellite tracking technology and are very cumbersome and expensive – that approach was just not going to work with livestock tracking. Drones and high-tech ear tag technology is going to put this all within the reach of the cattle industry in North America. Feedlots could be in the forefront of adopting new drone technology. More next time.