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Dare to Drone
John and Ben Ridder are a classic story of the younger generation showing the way on a new technology. John Ridder is the owner (along with his wife, Heidi, and his parents, Glenn and Yvonne Ridder) of Falling Timber Farm, a purebred Polled Hereford ranch. But it’s his 14-year-old son, Ben, who runs the drone on the 200-cow ranch in Marthasville, Missouri.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve liked playing with helicopters,” says Ben. “Then in school I got interested in photography. This lets me combine them.”
Just this past March, the Ridders bought their first drone with a camera. “We’re still experimenting, but already we can go out to a field and check a hay feeder with the drone and know when it’s empty,” he says.
Ben also used the drone to record aerial video of the ranch for a bull sale. He’s putting together more drone-eye video for a farm tour they’re hosting in the fall. “When we are recording, we can usually get the drone within 30 to 40 feet of the cows before they even seem to notice,” he says. “That’s a pretty good view.”
Eventually, Ben will put a small whistle on the drone and use it to get the animals’ attention. That, he thinks, will let the drone serve as a flying herd dog to move cows.
The Ridders use a DJI Phantom 4 Pro, an upgrade model with a 60-frame-a-second camera. It shoots video and still photos and sends them to a tablet computer at the control station. The total cost for this setup was about $3,500.
Ben definitely sees this as a potential career field for himself. “I like new technology,” he says.
John likes it, too, while taking a back seat to his son in making it work. “I think it will be neat when we have a drone that runs itself remotely,” says John.
“For instance, we have a farm where we keep cattle that is 45 miles from home. We have to go there three or more times a week to check on them,” he says. “With a remote drone on that farm that will go see the cattle for us, we will be able to watch the video from home. That will be awesome.”
uses in livestock will take flight
An early farm drone advocate, Robert Blair speaks to many farm groups on the topic. “The livestock side has lagged on this,” he admits.
Part of the reason is that the FAA’s line-of-site provision – you have to be able to see the drone – limits a drone pilot in many areas to about ½ mile or 1 mile of flight distance from your command location. That’s limiting to some larger ranches, says the Kendrick, Idaho, farmer. He’s a proponent of relaxing the regulation, particularly for agriculture.
The low-hanging fruit for livestock farm drone applications is viewing fences, ponds, and remote feeders. “Eventually,” Blair predicts, “we’ll have drones with sensors that can remotely read an RFID ear tag on a cow or maybe even recognize the face of a cow.
“Thermal images from a drone will let you see the differences in the size of animals,” he continues. “It will allow you to locate animals in areas with brush and trees – places where your pickup can’t go. You can see wildlife, too.”
In calving season, these devices will watch for problem births. “I’ve seen calves right after birth from a drone,” Blair adds. “That’s very cool.
“When I speak to groups about drones on farms, almost all the questions are about crops. It’s seldom about ranches,” he says. “As the regulations loosen, I see that changing quickly.”
select software wisely
Generic farm software doesn’t work so well in flying drone missions on a cattle ranch, says Dave Jacob. He’s a software developer with SylverDyn Software (silverdynsoftware.com) in Saint Helens, Oregon, who specializes in custom farm applications. Jacob is working with Barger Drones (bargerdrone.com) to build programs that make drones more efficient on ranches.
“Our software will let the drone fly a preprogrammed route,” he explains. For instance, since you know where the water tank is, the drone can be programmed to fly there, take pictures or video, and store it for your viewing. It will fly the route on its own.
Building that was fairly simple, says Jacob, while other applications are more complex. He’s working on a drone program called Fence Check. It also guides the drone on a preprogrammed route to view and video the entire perimeter fence of a pasture. “If there is a problem, you need to get the drone within about 15 feet of the fence to really see it,” Jacob says. “Generic software doesn’t do that. Our custom software does.”
A next step in this development is a program that will let the drone fly over a pasture, take pictures, and actually count the cattle. It will eventually be able to see the size of the animals, recognize them individually, and even track their weight gain, Jacob predicts.
Other applications that are on his software radar are for taking field measurements and identifying pasture weeds.
“One of the things we’re doing is simplifying the process,” he adds. “We won’t need as many pictures to stitch together to get highly detailed field maps.”