New ear tags, drones keep tabs

After years of trying to improve ear tag retention, researcher ponders drones to gather data

KAMLOOPS, B.C. — When it comes to managing his cattle, Jeff Braisher has found it all comes down to one thing.

Whether the British Columbia rancher is counting cattle, tracking movement of his herd or assessing weight gains, his biggest conundrum is figuring out how to make an ear tag stay in the cow’s ear.

“If you can’t keep it on the cow, it doesn’t matter what technology you have got or how great it is,” he said.

Braisher formed his own research company, KRL Solutions, in 2010 to answer his own questions about growth and feed efficiency. He needed reliable ear tags, and some of his work has expanded to using drones to monitor cattle to improve business on his ranch south of Golden, B.C.

He is not affiliated with the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency’s ongoing trials about retention of ear tags.

Braisher is also a financial risk manager and an alumnus of the Cattlemen’s Young Leaders program. When he became interested in testing ultra high frequency ear tags, he worked with his CYL mentor to receive more than $100,000 to buy some of the equipment he needed to work on UHF tags.

His grant proposal was to develop and test new, never tried livestock identification tags that were more likely to stay in place.

“The problem at that time was there wasn’t a lot of really good UHF tags for livestock,” he said.

Braisher collaborated with researcher Glen Kathler at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, who had a four-year, $1 million research project with the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency to test and develop tags.

He also reached out to researchers in Eastern Europe, China and the United States to work on ultra high frequency passive and active tags as well as a number of transponders.

Some of that work was with an American software provider that developed a system used to track patients and equipment in hospitals.

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“We adapted that and put it in the ranch environment, and so at the end of that project, we identified the network infrastructure on B.C. ranches was going to be quite difficult to implement on a wide scale.”

His assumption was that a system that could work in rugged terrain and crown grazing leases covered with trees could work anywhere.

He continues to assess retention of 15 tag variations and has a proprietary design that appears to work well in growing animals where tag loss is highest.

He wants to know where they can be attached and stay in place because he has learned manufacturers tend to over-promise and under-deliver.

“What can be done and what is being done are two different things,” he said.

“It always comes back to what is the cost of implementation.”

He also questions how much information he needs about his cattle and their activities.

“Maybe we don’t need to see the cows every single minute. Maybe we just need to capture snapshots of what is going on.”

Tracking cattle movement and running inventory turned into a collaborative partnership with Dr. John Church, B.C. Regional Innovation Chair in Cattle Industry Sustainability at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops.

Church has received major funding to investigate drones that can move cattle and track movement in forested rangeland as well as monitor animal health in feedlots.

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His research began in earnest in 2014. For him, the possibilities are almost endless.

He can attach near infrared cameras to a drone to fly over hayfields and pastures to assess plant health.

“The same drones I am using to search for lost cattle are the same drones I am using to assess the quality of the pastures, so they are really incredible tools,” Church said. “I have drones with thermal cameras to see cows under the trees.”

Thermal devices can also detect elevated animal heat and pick out the sick ones in a feedlot sooner than a pen checker.

More ranchers are adopting drones, and at a cost of around $2,000 per unit, it is much cheaper than hiring a helicopter at an hourly rate to count cattle. It may also be more efficient than checking fences, waterers and cattle on horseback or from an all-terrain vehicle.

“If you just use it to observe the cows, you can get remarkable views over time,” he said.

GPS can also help drones find cattle.

All the information can be tracked with an iPad, iPhone or Android device.

Braisher said the only limitation is keeping up with the rapid advances made with this emerging technology.

“The changes that have happened in the seven years since we started from 2010 is almost dumbfounding and it is difficult to keep up with everything that is going on around the globe,” he said.

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