Are drones the new future of ranching or hi-tech interference?

TRU professor researching whether or not drones are a viable alternative to manual labour in ranching

John Church believes that drones could save both time and labour on many of B.C.’s ranches. (Cassandra Elonen/The Omega)

Nearly three years ago John Church, an associate professor in the natural resource science department of Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops B.C., announced his revolutionary idea of modernizing traditional cattle ranching to the public eye. By combining technology with pioneering visions a business opportunity arose in John’s mind.

Currently 90 per cent of B.C. ranchers use Crown land and 80 to 85 per cent of the cows know how to find their way home, however, there is always 15 per cent that get lost which leads to ranchers spending a lot of their time searching for missing cattle come fall seasons.

Usually, ranchers seek the huge acres in the blindspots or even hire helicopters to search the perimeters, which costs from anywhere $1000 – 1500 per hour when looking for stray cattle. Using drones instead will save both time and money, compared to one cowboy’s manual labour.

Whilst the research project is coming to an end and is estimated to be finished in March 2019, drones specifically designed for cattle search are already available on the market for purchase.

“In this particular project, we have used the model called Phantom 4, which is a well-known drone for the cost of $1500. I prefer DJI drones because they are a reliable brand and remarkably cheap today compared to when I first started my work in 2013 and spent $30,000 on similar drones that didn’t fly nearly as far,” Church mentioned.

Ralph Michell, the owner of Jocko Creek Ranch was raised and born into the lifestyle of ranching, practically able to tie and throw a lasso before he learned how to crawl. Being the fourth generation on his family farm, Michell is supportive of drones yet concerned basic knowledge has been lost in the frenzy of having the latest devices, reminiscing a time when hi-tech robotics was not invented yet.

“When my great-grandfather first bought the 160 acres ranch in 1903 the trapper he bought it from did not trust so-called ‘paper money’, so great grandaddy had to pay the trapper in 500 silver dollars,” Michell said.

“When asking today’s average kid where eggs come from, most of them will answer the store. They have no idea it actually comes from a chicken’s butt,” Michell added followed by a contagious laugh.

While Michell is sceptical toward a drones capability to handle variable weather changes, he remains optimistic for the potential future services drones hold, especially the use of mapping flights creating visual images of the pastures.

In addition to the main purpose of finding lost cattle, drones can also detect sick animals and monitor pasture conditions using a thermal camera. While Church admits drones have a short battery life, lasting about 25 to 30 minutes, the professor has discovered multiple effective uses of drones that can be beneficial for the ranching occupation.

“We are very close to track animal ID through RFID ear tags and find out the exact GPS location for each cow. Imagine being able to use the drone as an antenna and read specifically where cow number 43 is from a distance. Currently, we have an ear tag prototype under development which is tested on solar power and can track a range from three up to five miles. The challenge we are facing right now is that the ear tag runs on 9.05 frequency megahertz, which can’t see trees. The goal is to have a read reach up to 10 miles,” Church informed.

Yet the future possibilities of drones doesn’t end there. Research shows that one of the reasons for climate change is that the protein content of the grass is declining. Using drones Church is confident plant identification is feasible.

Another possibility is using drones to find out which cattle are more heat tolerant by adapting current research from heat stress and looking at the potential impacts of wildfire smoke. By measuring the surface temperature with infrared and comparing it with the internal temperature of a cow, even detecting breeds or cattle within the same breed that are better able to cope with heat stress should be possible.

“When I first started this project I heard a prediction that one in four ranchers will own a drone and I thought for sure this is craziness, but then I got to fly one myself and noticed how fun and truly beneficial drones can be, which is why I now envision this to be true in the near future,” Church anticipated.

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