Let’s face it, the widely used dairy systems, such as grass-based block calving, although robust, are relatively labor-intensive. That means agricultural digitization could offer farmers much-needed relief. Farmers needed a solution that can find stray cows or lost animals, plus monitor sick or injured dairy animals using technology such as drones to limit the need for boots on the ground.
Now farmers can use automated drones for dairy farms to monitor nearly every aspect of the stock and move the herd around the grazing fields more effortlessly regardless of the farm size. The drone technology makes it possible for ranchers to improve animal welfare and meet the ever-increasing compliance demands, among many other benefits.
Why Drones for Livestock Management?
Statistics show that up to 60 percent of cattle losses in the US, which represent 2.5 million heads of livestock, result from health-related issues. In grazing-based systems, cows spend most of their time in the field, making it almost impossible to monitor each animal’s health through the feet-on-the-ground method. As a result, sick or injured dairy cattle are worryingly identified when it’s too late and when death is imminent.
But with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, livestock managers can keep track of each cow’s wellbeing remotely, allowing them to intervene as soon as a problem arises. The drones for dairy farm system leverages face technology to identify cows in the field, measure their weight, size, physical activity, and other indicators of ill health.
Application of Drones in Dairy Farming
The immense development of drone technology has led to widespread use of UAVs in different fields, including medicine, forecasting, military, and recently agriculture.
While the uptake of drone technology in crop production is appreciable, most livestock farmers seem reluctant to adopt this innovation. Traditional farming systems remain the primary livestock management protocols in most dairy farms to date. However, these systems are labor-intensive, time-consuming, and pretty uneconomical.
Typically, the farmer needs to monitor animal movement, feeding, cattle health, and supervise staff without neglecting other managerial responsibilities in the ranch. Leveraging modern technology to manage livestock can spur greater profitability with a significant reduction in labor requirements. This is where drones for dairy farms come in.
As a farmer in the dairy industry, you can use drones for various functions, including:
1. Cattle Counting and Monitoring
Cattle monitoring drones make it possible to determine livestock location within the farm and even count the animals. The unmanned aerial vehicles usually fly around the grazing field or cattle shed, capturing animal images or videos, which the farmer evaluates to detect any unusual activity and register cattle numbers.
Again, the drones for dairy farms allow anyone within or outside the farm to watch live footage of animals in the field. UAV technology is crucial, particularly for animal monitoring at night when darkness limits human vision.
Usually drones for livestock monitoring are fitted with thermal sensors that locate cows using their body temperatures, making nighttime evaluation possible. The drones fly at about 90-270 feet above the herd and produce thermal images unique to each animal.
During the day, the downward-facing cameras embedded in the drones track animal motion and provide information on location and orientation. This means farmers can identify sick cows lying down in the field or any other discrepancy in the herd for immediate action.
2. Drones for Farm Security
Any farm faces several security issues ranging from predators to trespassers. It’s therefore imperative to devise a foolproof strategy to protect your dairy farm against all kinds of invasion.
Continuous monitoring of the pastureland for unusual events helps optimize ranch security. But have to say, this might not be achievable with human surveillance, which is limited in both area coverage and sensitivity. Here, unmanned aerial vehicles come in handy to help farmers implement security measures with greater effectiveness.
Using agriculture drones, you can get real-time information about cattle, pasture growth, staff actions, and the presence of any other animals within the farm. Drones for dairy farm with thermal technology allow livestock keepers to detect thieves or strangers entering the grazing fields and respond accordingly.
3. Herding Cattle With Drones
Replacement of human labor with robots is a reality in many industries, especially those posing significant health risks to people. Farmers in the dairy industry can now use drones to herd cows instead of employing human or dog herders that might take considerable time to move the cattle around the ranch.
Once the drone cameras locate the cows in the pastures, the operator directs the crewless vehicle to a particular side. The cattle will always move away from the sound of a low-flying drone. This facilitates remote control of cattle movement within the grazing field.
In most instances, some cattle separate from the rest of the herd and move in opposite directions. A herder might be needed to bring the straying animals back to the herd, thereby limiting the risk of cattle losses. However, in hilly pastures, the terrain poses a challenge to navigating the fields and moving animals by foot-on-the-ground strategy.
Drones for dairy farms allow you to locate herds, move them around while identifying the sick or straying animals just like a herder would do but with more efficiency.
4. Greater Productivity with Automated Drones
Even though agricultural drone technology is in its initial stages of development, considerable milestones such as automation make farmers’ work less time-consuming and labor-intensive.
You can save several hours by scheduling programmable drones to capture images of dairy cattle in a particular section of the range and count the animals at given intervals of time without additional human input.
These simple, automated drone operations are just the first use-cases in the pipeline. Soon, cattle management software, monitoring, and movement will be entirely automated to allow farmers to focus on other aspects of the ranch.
For now, you can automate the drone operations by fixing an RFID tag on each animal. The tags help UAVs accurately locate animals and measure their parameters such as size, temperature, and physical activity.
With RFID, you can direct the drone to scout for individual animals within the ranch and return information about their location, health, feeding, and other conditions. Once you key in the RFID code into a computer, the programmable crewless vehicle moves out, locates the animal in the pastureland, and measures the parameters of interest.
5. Ranching With Drones
The average size of a ranch in the US is 442 acres. The farm requires regular inspection and maintenance to ensure proper grazing, infrastructure development, and crop rotation, regardless of the expanse.
When combined with other basics of livestock management, such as herding and calving checks, the ranch workload is likely to strain resources on any farm. Therefore, automation is necessary to enhance production.
A programmable drone can help you define the portions of the pasture that have been grazed and consequently move the herd from that area to the next paddock. For rotational grazing, you need to adjust the intervals for moving the cattle to ensure an adequate time that allows forage regeneration.
Finding the Best Drones for Dairy Livestock Management
As you consider integrating drone technology into your farm, here are the things to watch out for:
To evaluate the fences, animal location, ponds, and mineral feeders in an average-sized ranch, the drone battery should support a flight time of about 30 minutes. Commercial farms with advanced needs might require drones of greater battery power.
Drones managing livestock usually come with fitted cameras that capture cattle images and record videos of the herd. Therefore, you need to select drones with cameras that sufficiently identify and differentiate animals from the most extended range possible. For nighttime monitoring, consider cameras with thermal sensors that detect animals even in pitch darkness.
The size of drones makes them vulnerable to drag by strong winds. If your agricultural UAV can’t withstand winds of about 25mph, it’s likely to get blown away and damaged when flying around the farm. Some places are prone to intense storms, which require drones with higher wind resistance. Before you purchase drones for managing your cattle, ascertain the prevailing wind conditions in your area and choose a vehicle with commensurate stability.
Companion mobile app
User-friendliness of the accompanying drone mobile app ensures that you utilize every device’s feature adequately. The app should also have the capacity to run the relevant elements necessary for implementing different aspects of ranch management. For instance, survey livestock, identify ranch issues and plan livestock operations functions should be available in the app.
Types of Drones in Agriculture
Agricultural drones fall into two primary categories; rotary and fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicles.
Similar to helicopters, rotary drones have propellers (rotors) that keep them aloft. The number of rotors usually varies between the different kinds of copters; For instance, a quadcopter has four propellers.
Rotary drones usually take off and land vertically, making them easier to launch in any section of the farm. Plus, you can easily maneuver the unmanned vehicle around the ranch and crop fields, even in poor terrain, to obtain the most accurate information.
Their ease of use makes the rotary drones the commonest UAVs in farms today. However, these drones drain batteries faster than fixed-wing vehicles, giving them a flight time of only 10-20 minutes. The battery half-life can be even lower when flying the drone in windy conditions.
Fixed Wing Drones
Just like airplanes, fixed-wing drones use the lift-and-drag principle to remain airborne. Most of these agricultural UAVs have only one propeller that uses less battery power and thus giving them a longer flight time.
Fixed-wing drones usually achieve higher flight speeds than rotary drones. A combination of speed and battery life determines the possible acreage of a drone. As a result, fixed-wing drones can cover a greater land expanse than their rotary counterparts.
On the downside, the fixed-wing drone requires adequate space to land, just as a plane needs a runway. Some drones will land by skidding.
In an attempt to overcome landing or takeoff and battery life issues, a hybrid drone has been designed. This kind of unmanned aerial vehicle flies like a fixed-wing drone but takes off or lands like a copter.
Best Drones for Farm Security
Drones technology is a discreet way of maintaining farm security. These lightweight objects can evaluate the integrity of fences, identify trespassers, and keep an eye out for any illegal activities within the farm.
The uncrewed air vehicles usually come in different shapes and sizes to meet the needs of every possible farm type available. The best drones for agriculture come ready to fly with all the sensors, hardware, and software included in the package.
For livestock managers, fixed-wing drones with multispectral cameras, thermal sensors, and GPS will serve better in managing cattle in large ranches. However, images captured by fixed-wing unmanned aerial systems have poorer quality due to high-speed motion, making these drones unsuitable for obtaining topographic details.
Popular fixed-wing drones used for monitoring farms include:
The multi-rotor UAVs are the better choice when looking for an agricultural drone that can provide the survey details on topography and scout for weeds. The only tradeoff for rotary drones is the low acreage between charges.
Some of the popular multi-rotor drones available in the market today are:
What Type of Drone Battery Is Suitable for Agricultural Drones?
Nickel and lithium batteries are the prevalent technologies used in unmanned aerial systems. But lithium-based cells are preferred as they have higher energy density and provide more usable power per unit weight.
Currently, drones use either Lithium-ion or Lithium Polymer (LiPo) battery chemistries. Batteries with the latter technology are more popular as they reduce the weight of unmanned aircraft. Unlike lithium-ion batteries that use heavy metal cans for enclosure, LiPo batteries use lightweight aluminum pouches, making them favorite agricultural drone batteries.
Soon, lithium-sulfur technology will be the preferred choice battery type for unmanned aerial systems.
Drone technology is set to revolutionize the livestock industry, especially dairy farming, that has remained slow in adopting new technologies over the years. Precision agriculture that uses multi-UAV systems fitted with thermal sensors, multispectral cameras, GPS sensors, and livestock identification numbers now makes it possible for farmers to remotely monitor cattle, maintain farm security and move herds within the ranch.