How can colourful dog collars and game cameras help to improve beef production and management? The Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC), is always interested in hearing from producers about how often simple ideas not only reduce the workload but ultimately produce more pounds of beef.
From a BCRC blog posting last fall, here a few ideas from western Canadian beef producers that made a difference on their farms — benefited cattle, reduced their workload and helped to save time and money. Visit the BCRC website at beefresearch.ca to subscribe to the free blog service and receive email notifications when new content is posted.
Rob Somerville, who ranches with family members in east-central Alberta, is using both high and low-tech technology to help manage cattle on the century-old family farm near Endiang, about 90 minutes east of Red Deer.
On the low-tech side, “It may have been a good idea my wife had,” Somerville says. For the past two calving seasons he has been using bright-coloured dog collars to help identify calves he needs to watch.
“All our calves are given ID ear tags,” says Somerville, who ranches with his wife Laurie. “But when you have a good-sized herd and you need to find five calves out of about 300 head it can take a lot of looking to find the ones you want to check. Using these dog collars has made the job just so much easier.”
The brightly coloured dog collars are applied to calves that need some followup attention. It could be a situation where Somerville just wants to find a calf to make sure it is nursing its mother, it may be a calf that needs to be fed morning and evening, or in another case, it may be a calf being treated for some health reason that needs to be watched or given a followup treatment.” Say, for example, it is a calf and I just want to make sure it is nursing,” he says. “I’ll give it an orange dog collar and then when I’m checking the herd it is very easy to pick out. If there is another calf that needs to be fed twice a day I will give it a different-coloured dog collar. And if it is a calf that needs to be given some sort of treatment I’ll give it another coloured collar. It makes it so much easier to find them.”
Acting on Laurie’s suggestion, Somerville found the collars at an outdoor sporting supply store. They are large, brightly coloured and made of durable plastic-type material. He bought several in different colours.
“An important thing to remember, as soon as you are done trying to track a calf, make sure you take the collar off. They can be cleaned up and reused.”
Value of RFID tags
Another higher-tech management tool Somerville began using during the 2019 calving season is to outfit each calf with a CCIA-approved RFID ear tag as soon as it is born. “The dog collars help with management, but using these RFID tags on newborn calves has actually made me money,” says Somerville. With the RFID tags applied to the calf, almost as soon as it hits the ground, he can usually match the calf’s RFID to the mother’s RFID, eliminating or reducing the risk of ending up with an orphan calf.
“At the peak of calving when you have 20 or 25 cows calving a day it can get crazy,” he says. “Most pairs mother-up very well, but every once in while you run into a calf on its own and you have to ask ‘who does this guy belong to?’ So we try to be there and apply that RFID tag just as soon as the calf is born, and then we can come back later or the next day to dehorn calves as needed and attach a floppy ID tag in the ear.
Somerville bought a good-quality Gallagher RFID tag reader which also allows him to input management information into the reader right in the field.
“As soon as the calf is born it takes a few seconds to snap the RFID tag into place, you have the calf’s number in the reader and usually the mother is close by so you can capture her number as well and then move on to the next one.”
Somerville says he has had situations where soon after a cow gives birth, the mother wanders off and ignores the calf. In other situations he has had one cow calve but then she mothers-up with another cow’s calf, and occasionally there are twins born with both calves needing to be linked to a single mother.
He says it would have been a really useful tool in the spring of 2018 when bad weather hit during calving. “Several calves were literally born in a snowbank so you rushed to get inside to be warmed up, but then it was a challenge to get them paired up with their right mothers later on.”
Somerville says even with his new system of applying RFID tags at birth, if one calf does get missed it is easier to determine the mother of that calf through a process of elimination. “You can identify the ones that are paired up by RFID numbers, so that leaves just one or two that maybe haven’t been.”
Along with the RFID tag number, he can also input calf birth weights and other management information into the reader, which is all useful as he follows that calf through their on-farm finishing feedlot.
“Information on how the calf performs is also useful in making decisions on which cows to cull,” he says. “If you’re short of pasture and need to cut down numbers, it is always good to know who the bottom-end cows are.”
Somerville says he has used the RFID tags for years, but “it was mostly because it was required.” The calves would receive RFID tags at branding or just ahead of sale day. “I see now how they can be a valuable management tool right from birth in helping to keep cow-calf pairs mothered up. Using these RFID tags at calving will make us more money.”
Travis Peardon likes to keep an eye on summer and winter watering systems as well as farmyard activities, even when he might be some distance from home.
The southern Saskatchewan beef producer, who farms with family members near Outlook, uses two camera systems to help him monitor and manage cattle. This helps him maintain the beef herd and also saves time and stress.
One camera system is used to monitor remote watering systems on summer pasture and winter feeding areas. The camera either confirms water is available to his 250-head cow herd, or can alert him to a supply problem.
“Actually I got the idea from colleague Alicia Sopatyk, (Saskatchewan Agriculture livestock and feed extension specialist at Tisdale) who had tested the camera idea through the ADOPT program, ” says Peardon, who himself is also a provincial livestock specialist at Outlook. ADOPT is an acronym for Ag Demonstration of Practices and Technologies program.
With their cattle wintered on a site about a half-mile from the farm headquarters, Peardon installed a game camera over the winter watering system for the winter of 2018-19. The feeding site has a dugout with water transferred into a wet well and then pumped into a heated water bowl. He has electricity available from nearby irrigation systems to provide power to the watering system, although it can be hooked up to solar power as well.
The $350 game camera is mounted on a post above the water bowl and is programmed to capture three photos per day and transfer those photos to Peardon’s cell phone.” You can set up the camera system to be motion-activated or just program the camera to take photos at different times of the day,” he says. The game camera system provides 100 free photos per month. A fee is charged for any photos over the 100 limit.
“We know when our cattle usually head to the waterer so we have the camera programmed to send three photos daily at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and 12 noon,” he says. “It’s a good clear picture of the bowl, so if we can see water in the bowl we know it is working.”
Similarly, they can move the camera to a solar-powered watering system used on pasture in the summer.
“Before we had the camera we would need to check the watering systems every day,” he says. “This way we can regularly monitor the waterers and know they are working. You don’t want your cattle to run out of water at any time, but particularly on a hot day in the summer water needs to be available.”
The game camera photos are transmitted to Peardon’s cell phone as well as to his father’s. “That way we can both keep an eye on the watering system and check if there appears to be a problem,” he says.
“It saves time, it provides peace of mind being able to see the waterers are working, and also from a production standpoint you don’t want cattle running out of water.”
Another calving camera system in the farmyard is also a useful tool. It can be monitored form his cell phone or portable tablet.
“The calving camera helps you monitor cattle that are about to calve in the yard,” Peardon says. “You can scan over a group of cows and zoom in on a particular animal for a closer look. You can also zoom in on the waterer in the pen to make sure it is working. And I can also scan most of the farmyard to make sure everything is in order there.”