John and Ben Ridder’s story is one of the younger generation showing the way for new technology. The farm is owned by John Ridder (together with his wife, Heidi and his mom & dad, Yvonne, and Glenn Ridder) and is known as Falling Timber Farm, a full-blooded Polled Hereford cow farm. However, it’s his 14-year-old son, Ben, who conducts the drone on the 200-cow farm in Marthasville, Missouri.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve liked playing with helicopters,” says Ben. “Then in school, I got interested in photography. This lets me combine them.”
The Ridders purchased their drone with a camera just this past March. “We’re still experimenting, but already we can go out to a field and check a hay feeder with the drone and know when it’s empty,” he says.
Ben also used the drone to record video of the ranch for a bull sale. He is putting together a more drone-eye video for a farm tour they’re hosting in the fall. “When we are recording, we can usually get the drone within 30 to 40 feet of the cows before they even seem to notice,” he says. “That’s a pretty good view.”
Eventually, Ben will put a little whistle on the drone and utilize it to find the animals’ interest. That, he considers, will make the drone work as a flying herd dog to move cows.
The Ridders make use of a DJI Phantom 4 Pro, an advanced model with a 60-frames-a-second camera. It records video and still photographs and forwards them to a tablet computer at the control station. The cost for this set up was approximately $3,500.
Ben surely sees this as a possible career area for himself. “I like new technology,” he says. John likes it, also, while taking a back seat to his son in making it work. “I think it will be neat when we have a drone that runs itself remotely,” says John.
“For instance, we have a farm where we keep cattle that is 45 miles from home. We have to go there three or more times a week to check on them,” he says. “With a remote drone on that farm that will go see the cattle for us, we will be able to watch the video from home. That will be awesome.”
More Drone Uses Will Take Flight
An old farm drone advocate, Robert Blair talks to many farm groups on the subject. “The livestock side has lagged on this,” he admits.
Part of this reason is that the FAA’s line-of-site provision — You need to have the ability to see the drone — restricts a drone pilot in several areas to approximately 1/2 mile or 1 mile of flight distance from your control place. That is limiting to some larger ranches, states the Kendrick, farmer, Idaho. He is a proponent of relaxing the law, especially for agriculture.
The easily accessible products for cattle farm drone uses are watching ponds, fences, and feeders. “Finally,” Blair predicts, “we will have drones with detectors that could remotely render an RFID ear tag on a cow or perhaps even recognize the face of a cow.
“Thermal images from a drone will let you see the differences in the size of animals,” he continues. “It will allow you to locate animals in areas with brush and trees – places where your pickup can’t go. You can see wildlife, too.”
In calving season, these units will look for problem births. “I’ve seen calves right after birth from a drone,” Blair adds. “That’s very cool.
“When I speak to groups about drones on farms, almost all the questions are about crops. It’s seldom about ranches,” he says. “As the regulations loosen, I see that changing quickly.”
Pick Your Software Wisely
Generic farm software does not work so fine in operating drone purposes on a cattle farm, says Dave Jacob. He is a software programmer with SylverDyn Software (silverdynsoftware.com) in Saint Helens, Oregon, who creates apps for custom farm purposes. Jacob is serving for Barger Drones (bargerdrone.com) to create programs which make drones more useful on ranches.
“Our software will let the drone fly a preprogrammed route,” he explains. For example, as you know the location of the water tank, the drone can be instructed to fly there, capture photos or video, and save it for your viewing. It will operate the route on its own.
The rather simple construction says Jacob, while additional applications are more complicated. He is working on a drone application named Fence Check. Additionally, it manages the drone on a preprogrammed path to see and video the whole perimeter fence of a field. “If there is a problem, you need to get the drone within about 15 feet of the fence to really see it,” Jacob says. “Generic software doesn’t do that. Our custom software does.”
The next step in this development is a program that will make the drone fly above a pasture, capture photos and actually counts the cows. It is going to have the ability to identify them separately, to find how big these animals, and monitor their weight accumulation, Jacob predicts.
Other applications on his software radar are for taking field measurements and identifying pasture weeds.
“One of the things we’re doing is simplifying the process,” he adds. “We won’t need as many pictures to stitch together to get highly detailed field maps.”
Drones In Action
Another example of cattle farming using drones to their advantage in Matador Cattle Company. J.D or John Douglas Russell knows his plan about a ranch. Being a 5th-Gen cattleman with Matador Cattle Company, he was born in the saddle.
Yet today, it’s where he is most convenient; depending upon the senses and skills of his horse to handle 2,000 heads of cows above 10,000 acres in the Flint Hills, simply outside Eureka, Kansas.
However, for as much as J.D. along with his group of cowboys respect and continue a number of the traditions that have not changed in 100 years, one decision they did not have to wrangle with was that the call to experiment with drone technologies at Spring Creek Ranch — one of Matador’s cattle ranches under J.D.’s charge. And this adoption of 21st-century technology has already shown its value on the range.
“With the drones, if you have a concern about a cow, you can fly over to check it out,” said J.D., “versus having to drive 15 to 20 miles to get a horse and come back only to find the cow has moved. Then you’ve got to go track it down again, so I see a lot of potential in drones for us.”
The best way for ranching to use drones might at first seem out, but it is consistent with Koch’s attempts to incorporate new technologies into all aspects of company business, from manufacturing assembly lines to ranching, all of the ways down to ranching.
“I’ve had the privilege of multiple learning opportunities by working with this company,” said J.D. “The things this team has been able to experience and go out and try from an entrepreneurial perspective have really been beneficial. Being able to take and find new ways to innovate with technology … it really gets you thinking, ‘what if?’”
With this technology in hand — and up in the air — is helping inspire new uses for the equipment encourage. J.D. foresees being able to finally scout ahead and survey rough terrain, identify and enhance invasive species, safely manage grass fires and also remotely examine RFID ear tags to track cattle health.
As drone cameras have developed, so have the opportunities for operators. Of specific value to ranchers now is the capability to add cameras to identify animals with their heat signatures. For J.D., the time savings simply makes the feasibility of one day with infrared technology at Spring Creek Ranch quite exciting.
“If you go prowling around looking for strays, you can kill a week in a hurry,” he said. “Or, you could shoot a drone up in the air and, in a matter of hours, cover a large percentage of the ranch. That’s key because those cattle are going to keep moving.”
The enactment of new technologies has been permanent for J.D. He started serving for Matador Cattle Company. He credits the growth of the company’s cattle breeding work to experimentation with DNA testing, artificial insemination, and embryo transfer. But, apart from the future potential of drones on the ranch, there’s one technological progress he still thinks to be one of the most significant – the smartphone.
“I don’t know how we ever did without them,” said J.D. “Just the instant communication and amount of data that’s at your fingertips. Before, if we had a problem with an animal, it might take three or four days to get an answer from a veterinarian. Now, you can research symptoms on your phone and have a pretty good idea of what the problem is before talking with the veterinarian.”
However, even modern technology has its limitations out ranch. Telling one of his institute professors, J.D. says “Models don’t make decisions, managers do.”. To put it differently, informed decisions are going to need human input.
“There are some things we’ll continue to do traditionally that we all hold dear, but to be able to be productive and innovate and experiment has been very rewarding over the years.”