Small farm ‘toys’ pack a mighty punch

Drones are getting off the ground in Alberta, in no small part thanks
to their practical applications on livestock and grain farms

Drones may seem like a fun toy — but on the farm, these fancy fliers mean business.

“At the end of the day, you want better information to make better decisions, and that’s what they give you,” said Steve Myshak, owner of Ventus Geospatial in Lethbridge.

“That’s the bottom line on why you want to use a service like this. It’s going to save you money on inputs, it’s going to increase your yields, and it’s going to help you detect diseases earlier.”

Drones — or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — are starting to take off (no pun intended) in Alberta as farmers start to see how they might boost their bottom lines, said Myshak.

Steve Myshak, owner of Ventus Geospatial

Drones are already earning their keep on some Alberta farms, says Steve Myshak, owner of Ventus Geospatial.

“You can increase your efficiency between 10 to 30 per cent over your whole farm,” he said. “That’s a direct cost saving right into your pocket.”

Most of that efficiency comes in time savings, he said.

“If you don’t want to walk your field, you can throw a UAV up and get live video feedback and see what’s going on in your field. Scouting your fields takes minutes, instead of hours or days. You can throw a UAV up in the morning and have data information in the afternoon.”

But there are other uses as well, including calculating field area or grain volumes; livestock counts; crop insurance claims; early disease or pest detection; and water movement.

Eyeballing the herd

Livestock operations across Alberta have already found plenty of uses for UAVs.

One feedlot in central Alberta uses them in a way that’s “very simple but very powerful,” getting a bird’s-eye view of its assets, said Myshak.

“To walk through there and do all that, it would take hours. You throw a drone up, you can get that data in minutes,” he said.

Another feedlot in southern Alberta uses UAVs to help with year-end inventory audits.

“Before they would have five or six accountants out there, plus five to 10 farm hands, to run the cattle down the shoot and measure all the bales,” he said. “Now we have one accountant on site and no help from the farmer, and we do everything in about a 10th of the time.”

Using UAVs, producers and feedlot operators are able to count cattle in the field — saving time while reducing stress for the animal.

“Now there’s no more need to run them down an alley,” said Myshak. “It’s very stressful for them, and they usually lose about a pound or two when you’re running them down the alley. This way, they don’t get disturbed. They don’t even know the UAV is there. We’re able to take the imagery back to the lab and do all the counts electronically.

“If you calculate one pound of loss per animal at a 10,000-head feedlot, you just saved yourself $15,000.”

Field flybys

But the benefit to grain farms may be even greater. For the past three years, Myshak has been working with Chris and Harold Perry of CKP Farms near Lethbridge.

The Perrys are “big into data-driven agriculture,” said Myshak, and were looking for ways to use data from drones “to make better decisions — to fertilize less, to save water, to detect diseases, to reduce inputs, and to increase yields.”

All of their potato fields are flown weekly, and they use the imagery from the UAVs to develop a prescription for their irrigation pivot, which has variable-rate control on every nozzle.

During one of those weekly flights, Myshak noticed a dark spot at one edge of the field using an infrared sensor. Healthy plants reflect more near-infrared energy, he said, while stressed or dying plants reflect less.

“You might not be able to see it in the visual data, but there’s something happening there,” said Myshak. “You’re able to detect things in the plant weeks before you ever see it with the naked eye.”

Upon seeing the potential problem area in the field, Myshak sent the GPS co-ordinates to the Perrys. The dark spot turned out to be potato blight.

“The key to having potato blight not ruin your whole field is early detection,” said Myshak.

“He may have lost 10 per cent of the field, but he’s basically saved the rest of his field. That’s $200,000 or $300,000 he saved because of drone imagery, which costs him a few dollars an acre.

“That’s the value proposition. It costs money — but it also saves you money in the end.”

And that kind of data doesn’t come cheap. For simple field scouting, a top-of-the-line UAV isn’t really necessary; a $1,500 DJI Phantom will likely do the trick, he said. But to capture the best data, “you’re going to need an expensive sensor and an expensive platform,” said Myshak, adding that prices can range up to $150,000.

“You really do get what you pay for.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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