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Using new technology to monitor cattle

Animal Health: Stationary cameras and drones can be used in many ways

Thompson Rivers University student Chris Solecki testing out a drone which columnist Roy Lewis says can play a practical role in livestock management.

Technology has advanced for monitoring the health of cattle both at calving time and on pasture. Two operations I deal with during the calving season have used advanced cameras in the last several years. I have also seen demonstrations and heard a few presentations on drones for checking and monitoring cattle. It appears to be useful technology.

The technology is there to have high-resolution cameras with telephoto lenses which can pivot 360 degrees and go to infrared images at night. Even one camera strategically placed in the calving area can cover a big area. The question is how do they help us? .

Teachable moments

I run a calving rotation for University of Calgary Veterinary Medicine (UVCM). The learning and teaching experience can be huge with cameras. Showing new employees, students or urban visitors a calving cow has many teachable moments. For the herd manager, the lens can focus on what is protruding from the vulva and determine if a malpresentation needs to be brought in and corrected.

Calving behaviour can be taught because it allows one to let more cows calve in the winter naturally outdoors. Newborns can be brought into a shelter right away to minimizing frozen ears. I find many cows, if disturbed when brought into a barn during calving, will cease labour for a while. Some cameras can even be accessed through your phone so images can be looked at remotely. This way with a cow in labour, you can effortlessly check on her progress every 10 minutes if you wish.

By monitoring cattle with the camera this past spring, producers and students could prevent cows from stealing other cows’ calves and/or alert them to perform a few hand pulls right in the pen. An all-too-common complaint is losing calves from suffocation if the water bag gets stuck over the nose of a calf. You can watch on the camera to insure the water bag has broken or the cow has licked it off. If necessary you can quickly run to the calving area to save it.

In a case where a calf did not survive, reviewing the images on the camera showed it had survived about 20 minutes before succumbing which surprised me. It had been born very quickly (was a twin) so the bag did not break.

Other uses for cameras will help a producer see if newborns are up and sucking and determine any changes in cow behaviour and nesting, indicating impending calving. Cows off feed and not chewing their cud can easily be detected as well.

Monitor all aspects

Aside from calving season, cameras can be set up in a breeding pen to detect heats for AI or synchronization programs, or set up around watering bowls or mineral feeders to help observe abnormal behaviours, sickness and lameness. Auction markets use them to verify numbers of head when unloading, in the sale ring, or loading up. Cameras in the arrival feedlot pen can insure all cattle are finding feed and water. There are multiple uses for video cameras to improve our management, save more animals potentially and save labor.

Camera-equipped drones are quite new to the agricultural sector but Dr. John Church, a professor at Thompson River University in Kamloops B.C. who has done extensive experimentation with the technology, sees a huge potential in animal production.

Images are crystal clear and the machines can fly high and monitor the whole herd or drop down and carefully monitor one animal separated from the herd for a look at clinical signs and identification. They can zip from one side of the herd to another, so it is easy to follow an individual. The telephoto lenses can be phenomenal for reading ear tags or other identification from 90 feet away so the cattle are not disturbed. Monitoring feed bunks and cattle inventory are two additional uses in the feedlot for drones.

Drones can also save tremendous time for checking pasture conditions or checking operation of watering bowls or mineral feeders. On pasture, they can help identify lame animals or breeding bull injuries, and identify location for treatment.

Pastures can also be monitored to identify patches of noxious weeds, and to see if gates are closed. There are many uses for drones or stationary cameras in food animal production. We have probably just scratched the surface.

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



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