Successful Farming - - TECHNOLOGY - By Gene John­ston

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 pre­pro­grammed 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 (Amer­i­can­robotics.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.

Drones can get you up close to view cat­tle, fences, pas­tures, and gates in re­mote places.

One easy ap­pli­ca­tion of drones is the abil­ity to see re­mote wa­ter sources in big pas­tures where it’s dif­fi­cult to go by mo­tor ve­hi­cle.

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