VIDEO: Drone use shows promise as ranch helper

John Church demonstrates a DJI Phantom 3 at the Canadian Bison Association field day near Chase, B.C.  |  Tom Walker photo

Researchers look to ‘precision ranching’ to help cattle producers carry out basic tasks and pasture management

KAMLOOPS, B.C. — Research designed to develop drones to help with routine ranch work has been given a $664,000 grant.

John Church, Innovation Chair in Cattle Industry Sustainability at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, and his team are working with drones to carry out basic ranch tasks. Those include searching for, monitoring and herding cattle, as well as techniques to help manage pastures.

“If I can help cattlemen better manage their two biggest assets, their herd and their rangeland, that will go a long way,” said Church.

“I’m calling this precision ranching. Precision agriculture is going like fire on the Prairies to manage the crops. We are the first group to go after precision ranching. I know this is the future.”

The grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council will also help continue the partnership Church has built with the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and Kingsclere Ranch in Golden, B.C.

“The drone is simply an aerial platform,” he said. “When we put a camera on that platform, we can do a multitude of common ranch work quickly and from a central point.”

Church said ranchers could use drones to check fence lines or irrigation equipment in a fraction of the time it takes an ATV rider.

Many cattle producers in B.C. rely on crown land for summer range, which is often in rugged terrain. In autumn, there are always a few animals that go missing, and drones could play a key role in searching for them, Church said.

Church said he has helped his ranching partner, Jeff Braisher at Kingsclere Ranch, use a drone to herd up to 200 cow-calf pairs a distance of 10 kilometres.

“They (cattle) don’t like the wind that the props kick out,” he said. “And the drone can go back and forth across the field so quickly it can easily nudge the stragglers along. The ranch dogs might be facing retirement.”

Church said the real expansion of drone technology comes when more sophisticated equipment is added.

“With an infrared camera, we can spot a cow’s heat signal, even when they are under the forest canopy.”

The camera can discriminate between a cow and another heat source.

“With GPS technology on the drone, we can record the exact location, transfer that to a hand-held unit and go out and bring the cow home.

“If we have been checking the herd with the infrared and a cow doesn’t move through the day, or the heat signal drops, you’d better go out and check if you have a predator problem,” he said.

He added a drone could also hover over a feedlot and do the daily animal count chore.

David Hill, associate professor of geography at Thompson Rivers University, is using the infrared technology to map rangelands.

“The measurements from a multi-spectral camera can show the variation in photosynthetic activity across a forage crop for instance,” he said. “We hope to be able to connect that with information on crop health, irrigation needs and even eventually nutrition content. If we apply a treatment, we can go back and see if it is working.

“We also want to be able to look at, say, the carrying capacity of a field, or monitor the spread of knapweed across a pasture.”

The part of the project that includes the collaboration with SAIT involves the institute’s work with radio frequency identification tags, which all Canadian cattle wear for traceability.

An antenna on a drone could potentially read a new passive tag from SAIT up to 12 metres away.

“We hope that with active tags that contain a solar chip and a battery we can extend that distance to between three and five km,” said Church.

“Then we can ID and locate a cow within the herd or feedlot.

“My dream is to be able to type in an RFID number and the drone will go out and find that cow on the range,” Church said.

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