Drones. How did we farm without them?

Hart Attacks: Drone school explained how flying cameras can change the cattle business

I know I shouldn’t be amazed by anything that has to do with new technology, but it seems I always am. I recently spent part of a day at a central Alberta drone school —primarily geared to beef producers — and came away thinking it just never ends.

So there I was in a community hall near Lacombe, Alta., for part of a two-day drone school offered by Edmonton-based LandView Drones, organized by the Grey Wooded Forage Association. LandView has been in the drone business for a few years and will not only explain how and where drones can be used in crop and livestock production, but if you pay attention in class you can even get certified to fly one.

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Dr. John Church, of Thompson River University (TRU) in Kamloops, B.C., was the key speaker for one morning of this class of about 15 livestock producers. He is chair of new technology and innovations research at TRU, and he has looked at different ways drones can be used in livestock production for fun and profit.

Drones can come almost in any size and price range. For this school they were showcasing multi-propeller units about the size of a dinner plate, prices ranging from $3,000 to $5,000, and can be outfitted with different cameras and sensors. The unspoken rule when it comes to drone buying? Take a spouse or adult with you to help keep you grounded in economic reality.

Here are a few places Church figures drones will play a part in livestock production, either already or one day soon.

  • Finding cattle on pasture. Launch a drone with a camera and have it scout rolling or timbered terrain while you monitor real time images on your tablet. When the drone camera sees cattle, you can lock in the GPS co-ordinates and go to that location by quad, truck or horseback.
  • Herding cattle. Not something you’d necessarily use every day, but Church says in certain areas, fly the drone low — when cattle feel the downdraft from the drone propellers they begin to move.
  • Checking cattle. Use the drone camera to zoom in on ear-tag numbers to identify specific cattle, or just to watch cattle behaviour. Is there anything looking sick, injured or walking lame? What’s happening in the calving pen?
  • Check health. Cameras equipped with thermal imaging can measure body temperature of cattle helping to assess animal health. Coupled with electronic eartags, the system can evaluate several factors including if a female is coming into heat. Cameras can use thermal imagining to determine body temperature and health. Software is being developed so camera-equipped drones can circle and scan cattle to measure body weight, or after sequential scans, measure average daily gain in individual animals.
  • Watch feed. In a feedlot, are all cattle coming to the feedbunk? Cameras can also measure available feed and feed distribution.
  • Check the pasture. Use cameras to check remote watering systems, scan fencelines or check gates.
  • Be the pasture. Down the road, a drone could be part of a virtual fencing system. Pastures or field boundaries are mapped with a GPS system. Cattle are outfitted with transponders attached to a collar around their neck. As cattle approach the field boundaries the transponder vibrates and eventually sends a mild shock to the animal, causing it to pull back from this virtual fence. The configuration of the boundary (virtual fence) can be changed as needed.

This school didn’t get into the fantastic world of how drones can be used in crop production, although the list of emerging applications is just as amazing: crop monitoring, soil assessment, plant counts, fertility, crop protection, harvest management and much more.

And let’s not forget the most important reason drones will have a fit in crop and livestock production. Aside from all the serious management and production efficiency reasons, it might just be fun to fly one of these things. It’s difficult to put a price tag on happiness.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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