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Beef Up Your Farm Security

Like many farmers, Steven Birkholtz rarely locked up his shop.

“I ran a welding and fabrication shop for 27 years on the farm, so I was used to people coming in and out of the shop,” says the fourth-generation farmer from Willow Lake, South Dakota. “When I closed the welding shop to farm full time, people would still come and borrow tools.”

The policy of leaving his door open backfired on Birkholtz.  “One day I went out to the shop, and I was missing welders, generators, and drill presses,” he says.

That incident in 2012 prompted Birkholtz to put his farm on lockdown. He added lights, locks, and, most importantly, a set of sophisticated video cameras.

“The camera system cost me $7,000,” he says. “If the cameras would have been installed when the tools were stolen, the system would have paid for itself right away.”

Birkholtz learned the importance of farm security the hard way, but you don’t have to. By protecting your critical assets through a series of different security measures, you can deter theft and help catch the culprit if you are a victim of theft.

Video surveillance systems
It’s been nearly four years since Birkholtz discovered that a thief had stopped at his shop. Since then, he’s gone through multiple video cameras before finding On Sight 24/7 Video Surveillance. While On Sight is the most expensive option at $7,000, Birkholtz believes the features, service, and durability make up for the extra expense.

“The thing I like most about On Sight is, I can look at the video feed and move the cameras on my phone,” he explains. “I bought one video system that said I could access it on my phone, but the company was based in New York, and I couldn’t get any service help from them.

“I got rid of those cheaper video systems in six months,” he adds. “I’ve used On Sight for almost two years and haven’t had a problem yet.”

Unlike most video surveillance companies, On Sight is based in the Midwest and works almost exclusively with farmers. “We started out of necessity,” says Brian Price, cofounder of the four-year-old video surveillance company based in Mitchell, South Dakota. “A large grain facility was being built in Mitchell, and new people started coming to town. Tools started to go missing, the crime rate went up, and since I was an IT guy, a few farmers approached me to put cameras up.”

Price’s business has grown significantly since those first few random jobs. He’s installed more than 1,000 cameras. About 60% of the business is on the cattle side, including cow-calf operations, sale barns, and feedlots. The rest is on row-crop farms watching remote grain bin sites and keeping an eye on farmsteads and shops. 

PowerTrak 360
The highest tech solution Price offers is called the PowerTrak 360. Like all of the On Sight cameras, you can remotely view the camera feed from a smartphone or tablet. That isn’t what makes the PowerTrak Price’s favorite camera, though.

“PowerTrak has the ability to track an object,” he explains. “So if people pull into your farm, PowerTrak will actually follow them to see where they went, how long they were there, what they did, and capture the make and model of any vehicles. This allows you to use one camera, instead of two or three, to monitor the main entrance to your farm.”

The software also has the capability to send alerts when motion is detected. “This technology works best in a confined space. For example, no one should be in the office of a hog barn from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. On Sight can set up a specific rule so the owner of the hog operation receives a picture when motion is detected during that time frame,” says Price. “This doesn’t work as well out in the open where trees moving in the wind or animals walking through set off the alert.”

PowerTrak also allows you to remotely move the camera’s focus and zoom in or out.

Video surveillance systems range greatly in price depending on your needs. “We’ve installed systems with 15 to 25 cameras that come in close to $35,000,” says Price. “We can also come in at the $1,000 price point for smaller farms.”

If you’re looking for a solution beyond video surveillance, a remote monitoring system may be the answer.

Remote monitoring systems
One night in 2013 at 3 a.m., Matt Schafer jolted awake in his pickup truck. The farmer-turned-vigilante may have fallen asleep awaiting some burglars, but he was still clutching a pistol in one hand and his cell phone in the other. The sheriff’s number was predialed on Schafer’s phone just in case he received another late-night visitor.

“It was at this moment that I realized I couldn’t do this anymore,” says Schafer. “I have three girls and a wife at home in bed, and that’s where I should be.”

What drove Schafer to be a midnight watchman? Persistent copper thieves. In a two-year time span, Schafer had the copper wire stripped from a 50,000-bushel grain bin two times. As if that weren’t enough, 13 irrigation wells were also hit. Replacing the wire could cost $500 to $5,000 for the wells and $20,000 to $35,000 for the grain bin. Insurance covered part of the cost, but Schafer’s insurance company was also raising his premiums at a drastic rate.

He’d tried cameras and alarms, but they weren’t successful. “With a camera, I could go back the next day and see what happened,” he says, “but at that point, they’ve already stolen the wire, and they can claim it isn’t them in the tape. I had to catch them in the act.”

So in the comfort of his pickup cab, Schafer started searching for copper wire theft solutions. That’s when he first learned about NetIrrigate, the creators of WireRat.

WireRat is a remote monitoring system that creates a closed circuit on irrigation pivots so it can detect when a thief is stealing copper wire. When this happens, an alert is sent to the farmer – and up to nine other contacts – with the intention of deterring the theft or catching the thief.

In 2013, Schafer’s midnight watches ended when he adapted WireRat technology so it could be used on irrigation wells and grain bins. “I don’t camp out anymore, and I don’t have to worry,” he says. “I own 16 WireRats. Thirteen are on my irrigation wells, one is on each bin site, and one I use in my office. It’s more important to me than the insurance I pay.”

WireRat wasn’t a game changer for just Schafer. It’s made a big impact on operations across the country. “The use of WireRat has led to 80 copper thief arrests and has foiled another 280 theft attempts,” says Julie Upchurch from NetIrrigate.

“With the success we’ve had in detecting copper wire theft on center pivots, we’ve gotten calls from other applications where copper theft is an issue,” she adds. “Our engineers went to work to develop more of a universal product that can detect an open in any normally closed circuit and offer additional benefits. That’s when we came up with xProxy.”

xProxy was developed last year to essentially do what Schafer had already envisioned: Use the remote monitoring system for applications beyond copper theft. For example, Schafer is using a WireRat sensor to monitor his office. When his office door is opened outside typical working hours, he’ll get an alert. Schafer had to make adjustments to WireRat to make this work. With xProxy, it will be much easier.

“xProxy has two wires that can be hooked up to any set of dry contacts – a set of switches or sensors. When the circuit is broken, you’ll get an alert,” explains Upchurch. “xProxy’s software allows you to customize the alert that’s sent out. For example, to say that the office door is open.”

How does it work? The xProxy link sensor, which is about the size of a sticky note and self-powered by a lithium battery, has a preconfigured cellular modem. When alert conditions occur, the sensor instantly connects to the xProxy Cloud and sends an alert. You can adjust the alert type and the recipients through the xProxy mobile app.

The potential applications are plentiful. NetIrrigate envisions that xProxy can be used to detect copper theft on grain bins or HVAC systems as well as monitor grain bin dryer temperatures, levels, and power; monitor pivot and irrigation pump pressure and power; provide security on gates, barns, and doors; and check water levels in troughs.

xProxy is priced at $549, and there are no monthly subscription fees. Installation takes an electrician about 15 minutes, according to Schafer. A hired man installed Schafer’s sensors.

Additional steps
The advancement of video surveillance technology and remote monitoring systems has greatly improved the ways to secure your farm. However, don’t forget about the tried-and-true – and normally less expensive – measures you can take.

Equipment identification
Remember the tools Birkholtz had stolen out of his shop? Those were found but couldn’t be identified because Birkholtz didn’t have the serial numbers written down. Don’t make the same mistake. Keep an inventory that includes the serial number along with the model number and year, type of machinery and brand, cost when purchased, and estimated replacement value.

You may also want to consider marking your equipment. Use a metal engraver or stamping tool and put a permanent identification number on equipment or expensive tools. Contact your insurance company for specific tips on ID numbers and inventory lists.

“I grew up never locking the house, never locking the shop, and leaving the keys in tractors,” says Harry Harrell, who farms in Miller, South Dakota. “However, times are changing. It appears to me that there is more criminal activity going on.”

While Harrell has never had an issue, he wants to be proactive against theft. That’s why he invested in an On Sight surveillance system as well as locks with security codes to access his shop.

Birkholtz also invested in a set of locks with keypads. “I have five different codes, so I can give employees a code that is different from mine. If someone doesn’t work for me anymore, I can erase the code so that person can’t get back in,” he says.

Both Harrell and Birkholtz also put up additional lights to illuminate buildings and fuel tanks. Putting the lights on an automatic time switch or using motion lights will save you the trouble of turning on the lights each night.

A watch group
If you’re having a lot of issues with theft, consider forming a local farm watch group. When Schafer was having issues with copper theft, he formed an informal group with local farmers. If you’re going to be out of town, don’t advertise it. Do find a trusted neighbor to keep an eye on things for you, or ask the local sheriff to increase patrols.

Double Duty

Farmers are known for being resourceful and inventive. They’re also known for stretching a dollar. So if you’ve already paid for a video camera or a remote monitoring system, why not put it to use to make your operation more efficient?

“Video cameras are a nice security appliance, but I love that we can turn them into devices that can help a producer,” says Brian Price, cofounder of On Sight video surveillance.

Steven Birkholtz has a portable camera system he uses specifically for calving. “If I were going to lose one $1,000 calf because the cow is calving and the foot is back and no one is there to see it, that could pay for the camera,” he says.

Harry Harrell, along with his brother, Lynn, runs a wheat seed sales business in addition to farming. Identity preservation is an important part of processing the wheat, so he uses a video camera on his grain storage system as a backup plan to provide verification. “If farmers come back and tell me they didn’t get what they ordered, I can go back to the video log and make sure a truck didn’t pull up to the wrong bin,” he says.

A feedlot owner is using his camera to get ahead of beef quality assurance. “He wants to make sure that when he’s gone, his employees are handling cattle in a humane way,” explains Price.

Remote monitoring systems can also work double duty. “One of the main benefits of the irrigation wells is the amazing water savings,” explains Matt Schafer. “I can turn my irrigation wells on or off from my phone. I can set a timer for when they should shut off, and I can also get an alert when one stops pumping.”

What needs to be protected?
When Brian Price, cofounder of On Sight video surveillance, starts working with a farmer, the first thing he does is locate the critical assets on the farm. Are they in the shop? Is there another machinery storage area? What’s located off the farmstead? Where are the grain bin sites?

Based on the asset locations and budget, Price builds a custom plan for each farmer. “Using a Google satellite map, I outline the assets, lay out a wireless map that will tie all of the cameras together, and identify the right camera for the job,” he says.

Even if you aren’t considering investing in a surveillance system, you can still follow Price’s lead. Identify where your critical assets are and what security measures you can implement to protect them.

Value and mobility are the two key factors that determine the type of equipment that thieves are most likely to steal, according to the National Equipment Register’s annual theft report. Value is the primary factor, except for items that are too large to move on a small trailer. That’s why the majority of equipment stolen tends to be smaller, such as skid steers and backhoes. It’s also why thieves, like the one who stole from Steven Birkholtz, target high-value, yet smaller, items such as welders and generators.

Of course, it’s not just equipment that’s at risk. More than half of Price’s video surveillance business is used on cattle operations. One customer wanted to monitor cattle in a remote pasture, but there wasn’t power or an Internet connection available. So Price installed a solar panel system. The camera connects to a wireless antenna that’s set up 3 miles away on the farmstead.

“It allows the producer to bring up the video feed and see where his cattle are throughout the day as well as monitor who is in the pasture,” he explains.

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