Video cameras, drones improve monitoring cattle health

Cattle monitoring technology is making great advancements with high resolution video and drones.

I’ve been able to observe the use of advanced cameras in the last year at two operations I deal with during the calving season.

I have also witnessed demonstrations and heard a few presentations on drones for checking and monitoring cattle.

Video cameras have been used for years to monitor cattle. Image quality was initially poor, but today’s high-resolution cameras have telephoto lenses that can pivot 360 degrees and use infrared technology at night. One camera strategically placed in the calving area can cover a big area.

The question is, how do they help us?

I run a calving rotation for the University of Calgary’s veterinary medicine program, and the learning and teaching experience can be huge with cameras.

Infinit Jib drone

Showing new employees, students and urban visitors a calving cow has many teachable moments. One can focus in on what is protruding from the vulva and identify a malpresentation that needs to be brought in and corrected.

Calving behaviour is useful to know because it allows more cows to calve outdoors in the winter and bringing the calves inside right away once they are born to minimize frozen ears.

I find that calving often stops for a while if cows are disturbed during calving and brought into a barn.

Technology is even available to allow producers to use their smartphone to access the camera feed. This allows them to check a cow in labour every 10 minutes, monitor progress and intervene if there are problems.

This past spring, producers and students were able to prevent cows stealing calves and do a few hand pulls right in the pen.

Calves often suffocate when the water bag is stuck over their nose. A camera monitor can help producers know when the water bag has broken or the cow has licked it off. If not, a quick run to the calving area will often save it.

In one instance, a calf born in the middle of night was not reached in time to remove the water bag. We were able to rewind the camera feed and found that the calf had survived about 20 minutes before succumbing, which surprised me.

It was a twin and had been born quickly, so the bag did not break.

Cameras can also help identify changes in behaviour. For example, cows that nest indicate impending calving. As well, they can detect newborns that are not sucking and cows that are off their feed, excessively enlarged or not chewing their cud.

Cameras can also be set up in a breeding pen to detect heat for artificial insemination or synchronization programs or around watering bowls or mineral feeders to identify abnormal behaviours, sickness and lameness.

Cameras can be used in processing areas to help teach proper techniques and monitor humane handling. I have seen them used to monitor unloading techniques and determine whether cattle are arriving lame. Auction markets use them to verify numbers at various stages from unloading through the ring and to loading again.

Cameras in the arrival feedlot pen can insure all cattle are finding feed and water.

Camera-equipped drones are new to the agricultural sector.

Dr. John Church, a professor at Thompson River University in Kamloops, B.C., who has done extensive experimentation with drones, sees huge potential in animal production.

The image is crystal clear and one can fly high and monitor the entire herd or drop down and carefully monitor animals that are separated from the herd to identify them and determine if they have signs of illness.

Drones can move from one side of the herd to the other, which makes it is easy to follow an individual.

They can save tremendous time when checking pastures, watering bowls and mineral feeders. They have also been used to find lost cattle in rugged terrain.

Church has even attached thermography cameras to successfully check body temperatures in controlled settings. They could be used to check on calving cows, but one would be flying low so would need to accustom the cattle to it first.

On pasture, drones can identify lame animals or bulls with breeding injuries so they can be treated or removed from the pasture.

Drones can monitor pasture conditions, identify problem weeds and help insure that gates are closed.

We have probably just scratched the surface as to what these monitoring devices can do.

They are limited by the weight they can carry, and most have about a 20-minute flying time.

These devices can generate a recorded image, which means information can be sent for further evaluation by experts such as a veterinarian, horticulturist or nutritionist.

For example, I look at many recorded videos of sick, injured or lame bulls for insurance exams. The video can essentially form a medical record that can be compared to a later recorded one to watch for improvement.

They say a picture says a thousand words, but I would guess a video says 10,000 words.

The technology is affordable, and the payback does not take long, particularly if it helps save a calf, identify a lame bull or find lost livestock.

And on its off days, the drone also has great recreational value.

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