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Up-In-The-Air Cattle Management

Drones have quickly gained a foothold as a management tool for crop farmers to scout for weeds, pests, and nutrient deficiencies.

In the beef business, drone adoption is a little slower. Be assured, though, cattle drones are coming. The benefits of a flying camera to help you see and manage a ranch are very appealing, perhaps even more so than on a crop farm.

A handful of cattle industry innovators are already making that case. Here are three stories of those entrepreneurs and early adopters.

Kevin Kester, Parkfield, California

Kevin Kester is better known these days as the current president of the biggest cattle industry organization – the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). He’s also a rancher and drone enthusiast who is constantly finding new ways to use a drone with a camera on Bear Valley Ranch.

“We got into it a couple of years ago,” he says. “We’d had some filming crews on the ranch who used drones. My son, Kody, and I liked what we saw and decided to get one ourselves.”

It was a DJI Phantom 4. Since then, it’s been a constant upward learning curve of finding cool new things the drone can do. The Parkfield, California, ranch is over 5 miles from one end to the other, and it is in mountainous terrain. 

One advantage of the mountains is that it gives them some high perspectives from which to fly the drone. That’s important partly because of the federal government’s FAA line-of-site regulations, which state you have to be able to see the drone as you fly it. 

“From our high locations, we can see up to 3 miles. The most we ever need to fly the drone is about a mile, though,” says Kester. 

Their first drone applications were for checking remote water spots on the ranch and knowing where the cattle were in some of the remote canyons. Then, they started finding new uses.

“Last year, we were using the drone to image some areas where we were going to build fence,” he explains. “We noticed that if we just hover over the cattle, they’ll move away, not like they are scared, but just gently move. We learned we can move cattle in areas it’s hard to get to. That saves a lot of horse and dog power.”

They also videoed a part of the ranch after a wildfire for insurance purposes. Because of the remoteness of some areas, they’ve used the drone to spot trespassing hunters and other illegal activities that they would never see otherwise. 

“The list of things we can do with a drone to save time and to be more efficient just keeps expanding,” Kester says. “There’s even an environmental benefit. If we use the drone to do something, we aren’t burning fossil fuel.”

They recently bought a second drone, which is also a DJI Phantom 4. You can buy a high-quality drone like it, with extra batteries and accessories, for between $2,000 and $2,500, Kester says.

  

Emmet Caldwell, Edgar, Nebraska

High Caliber Genetics, Emmet Caldwell’s ranch, sits on the border of Nebraska and Kansas and has cattle on both sides. He raises seed stock Red Angus cattle and has commercial cows, as well. 

Most of the pastures are about a half-section in size, says Caldwell. “I use a drone with a camera to locate the herd in the pastures and to decrease the time it takes to move cattle. Some cattle will move away from the sound of the drone in the direction I want them to go. Usually the rest will follow.

“I’ve also used it to locate animals that have gotten out of a pasture,” he says.

Caldwell says his drone is also beneficial in pasture and range management. “It makes it easier to check water levels in ponds,” he says. “I use it to spot heavily grazed areas and  thickets of thistles and cedar trees without having to drive the entire pasture.” 

He usually takes the drone to a high point at the edge of a pasture and flies from there. The drone is always in his line of sight, as required by FAA rules. The battery power gives about a half hour of flight time, usually enough to see fences, ponds, mineral feeders, and cow location in a pasture. “If it’s really windy, it takes a little more time,” he adds.

Caldwell thinks he’s just scratching the surface of drone potential for his ranch. “I know applications are coming for gathering herd counts and flying on auto pilot. It will be pre-programmed to fly itself where I want it to go,” he says.

He uses the DJI Phantom 4 drone, one of the standards for farm applications, with a standard camera. The cost, he says, can be $2,000 to $3,000 for a good system. “It’s certainly not excessive for the time I can save,” he says.

Russ Barger, Barger Drone, McCook, Nebraska

Barger Drone (bargerdrone.com) sells drones and camera packages to farmers, with a specialty on the livestock side. Interest there is definitely picking up, Russ Barger says.

“We’ve been to a number of cattle conventions in the last few months and talked to ranchers about what they would pay for,” he says. “One of those is a drone package that will check fences, of course. But there are other things they start to think about, such as checking cows for estrous. They wouldn’t have to be out in the pasture all the time. The drone would do it.”

Many ranchers send cows off to summer pasture at remote locations, Barger says. An autonomous drone – one that flies and shoots video all on its own on a preset route and schedule – would save many trips and man-hours. “You watch the video on your phone whenever you want,” he says. “That’s the future.”

Two companies, Barger adds, are working on this autonomous technology for farm and ranch use: American Robotics (American-robotics.com), and Precision Hawk (precisionhawk.com). 

“Our company expects to be one of their testers on the ranch side,” he says. In fact, Barger adds, they’re now looking for ranchers who want to partner on this innovative work.

The main package that Barger Drone sells is the DJI Phantom Pro drone with a high-end camera and a tablet for viewing the video. The package sells for about $3,000. 

“This drone can withstand 25 mph winds,” he says, and that’s important for ranches. It can fly for about a half hour on one battery charge. “It’s not an industrial drone, but it’s not a toy, either.” 

Barger says their tests show a half hour of flying is about enough time to see a half-section of pasture or rangeland. It can fly 40 mph top end. “Usually, if there’s a problem in a pasture of some kind, you’ll spot it in 10 to 15 minutes,” he says.

If you do see something amiss in a pasture, the drone gives you the ability to fly in closer for a better inspection. “You can see things right down to an electric fence line,” he says.

Barger is now working with software developers to build specific applications for drones on livestock ranches.

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