PRECISION RANCHING: Manage your cattle from your easy chair

New research points to a future in cattle production where 
most decisions will be made at the touch of a button

Imagine being able to manage your grazing cattle at the touch of a button and constructing ‘digital fences’ as you move them from pasture to pasture.

Or using drones to track your cattle while at the same time discovering the most nutrient-rich forage on your land.

These are just a couple of examples of current research that hold the promise of ushering in a new age of automated, precision technology in the cattle industry. Both hold the promise of significantly improving efficiency — on the ranch and across the value chain — and also producing healthier cattle.

Welcome to the world of the ‘digital homestead.’

Sean McGrath
photo: File

“I think it’s kind of exciting,” said Vermilion rancher Sean McGrath. “With beef cattle there has been lots of new technology in the loop but not necessarily automated, mechanical types of things.

“Particularly some of the virtual fencing is pretty exciting. There are places on our operation where it is not possible to build a fence, ever. This has potential to actually improve range management.”

While crop growers have been reaping the economic and environmental benefits of GPS technology for years, the realities of dealing with live animals have stuck livestock producers in the decidedly non-digital world of moving fences and best-guess approaches to grazing management.

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That’s about to change.

Managing cattle by satellite

Australia, home to vast cattle stations that cover hundreds and even thousands of square miles, is the leader in developing a suite of technology tools that researchers there have dubbed the ‘digital homestead.’

The goal is to create a ‘one-stop-shop online dashboard’ that would enable producers to do everything from in-field weighing of livestock and locating cattle to monitoring body condition, grazing conditions, and pasture health — all from their smartphones or computers. The Aussies are currently testing technologies such as ‘Walk Over Weighing’ stations (where cattle must walk over scales to access a watering station) and collars with wireless transmitters which can not only track an animal’s location but also indicate whether it’s eating, ruminating, or resting.

But a key to digital homestead research is the part that so intrigues McGrath — virtual fencing that uses satellite technology instead of poles and wire.

Virtual fences start with boundaries created from GPS co-ordinates that exist only as lines on a digital map. The boundary becomes real to the cattle when the solar-powered collars they’re wearing emit a sound as they near the virtual fence — a principle similar to the visual cue of a conventional electric fence. This, of course, means cattle would have to be trained to respond to the sound.

Few people — including the researchers themselves — believe this technology will entirely replace on-the-ground monitoring of cattle and pasture conditions. McGrath, for one, sees a flaw in the concept of training cows to recognize invisible barriers.

“If you had an imaginary line that went past a tree where the cow couldn’t go past, she would probably in the future associate that tree with a barrier,” he said. “We run lots of electric fence and when we roll up the wire, if the posts are still there it’s awfully tough to get a cow to go across where she remembers that wire being.”

However, he’s optimistic that some of the bugs in the system will eventually be worked out. “The potential is worth looking into or investigating further,” he said. “Take riparian zones. Instead of fencing out two miles of creek across difficult terrain you could put a digital fence in there, keep cows out of your creek, and move it as needed in a flooding event instead of having your fence wiped out.

“That kind of stuff I think has pretty neat potential.”

But he’ll want to see how effective the technology is and, as with any purchase, do the cost-benefit math before writing a cheque.

“I’d want to know it works before I go and spend money on collars and software. On the flip side, a mile of fencing is an awful pile of money, too.”

Never lose a cow

Much of the precision farming research occurring closer to home involves ultra-high-frequency radio frequency identification (UHF-RFID) readers. Meanwhile, the advent of drones has allowed people to better assess conditions on the ground for a number of purposes.

Can the two technologies be combined to track cattle and manage pasture?

That’s a question that Glen Kathler of SAIT in Calgary and John Church of Thompson River University in Kamloops, B.C. are trying to answer.

SAIT researcher Glen Kathler (centre) and B.C. colleagues David Hill (left) and John Church showcased their cattle drone project at a recent tech conference. Combining drones, RFID technology, and ‘virtual fencing’ will bring ranching into the world of precision agriculture.
photo: Thompson River University

Their plan is to deploy drones equipped with thermal cameras and UHF-RFID readers to track and time cattle from the air. The cameras will also be used to assess plant health and biomass in pastures. They chose the B.C. Rockies as the project location in order to test the drones in an area hard to reach by conventional methods.

“In B.C., a large proportion of cattle producers use Crown grazing and most of the cows — let’s say 85 per cent — come home on their own,” said Church. “But there are always some stragglers — 15 per cent or so that you have to find and round up.

“The eastern slopes of the Rockies in Alberta are very similar in a lot of ways to most of the terrain we are having to deal with in B.C. So it’s a really good partnership in that way. If we can find them in that locale you can pretty much find them anywhere.”

The drone will use thermal imaging for what Kathler describes as an “early warning system.”

“From probably half a mile away we can already detect the heat signature of an animal,” he said. “By the time we get to a quarter-mile away we can probably detect from the thermal image what it is. Is it a dog, is it a coyote, is it a cow?”

Because drones fly so smoothly, ones equipped with UHF equipment can quickly and silently read the cattle’s ear tags without disturbing the animals, he said.

“We could fly over to the cow and read its RFID tag without waking it up or scaring it,” he said. “With the GPS information from the drone we could report back where that cow is within 10 metres of its location.”

Grazing is covered, too

In the process, the recording technology on board the drone can help create a database of animal movement producers can use to develop a grazing strategy.

“The drone can be set up to fly a particular grid,” said Kathler. “The software will stitch those grids together so if you’ve done three or four flights you can look at your map on the screen and know where to fly next.

“You can lay out your grazing area into a form that can be handled by these quadrants where the drone can fly and do an inventory management.”

The Alberta and B.C. researchers have created a drone able to carry all the equipment necessary to take photos, videos, and create a database of in-flight activity. SAIT has also developed a new UHF directional antenna to facilitate the research. Next up are full test flights, which are planned for later this year.

However, even without the full array of equipment, the drones have shown some success in finding lost cattle, said Church.

“This past fall we were looking for lost cattle in some actual real-world cases where producers couldn’t find their cattle. We were pleasantly surprised that even without the ear tags we were able to find cattle missing on the range.”

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