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How drones for livestock management grow efficiency

By Micro Technologies

Drone technology provides fast, accurate head counts

drone in sky

It's been said that technology will never replace a good hand on horseback. That's because, as it has also been said, "They ain't never made a machine that can take as much abuse as a cowboy."

Though it's true that a feedyard worker will always have a job, technology will change how a good hand goes about the day. In fact, it already has in many different ways. What's more, thanks to drones for livestock management, that trend is accelerating.

Perhaps the most impactful technology in a feedyard has been how computers and software have replaced pencil and paper. Now, feedyard programs can capture the myriad data points that are essential in running the business more easily and efficiently. However, while interfacing that software with the day-to-day work of keeping a feedyard running has improved, more can be done.

That's where a drone can play a big part in helping keep a yard humming.

Counting cattle with drones for livestock management

One example is the handling of pens of market-ready cattle scheduled for shipping. Depending on how many pens are scheduled, physically verifying number of cattle will occupy two employees anywhere from a half-day to a day-and-a-half to make sure head counts are correct.

Since most feedyards don't have potential staff lined up at the door looking for work, existing employees could do something else while a drone is ensuring correct head counts.

So, how does it work?

A staff member ventures outside, puts the drone on the ground, and pushes "go" on their mobile device.

Okay, there's a little more to it than that. But not much. Using an automated feedlot inventory system like HeadCount simplifies the process for employees.

First, the feedyard employees send HeadCount a list of pens they want to count and HeadCount programs a flight plan. Then a worker goes through the process above. "The drone automatically flies the pens, takes a picture, and comes back," says Joe Young, Director of Beef Program Sales-South for Micro Technologies.

The feedyard downloads the images and submits them to HeadCount. The images are analyzed by software that uses artificial intelligence to perform the initial count.

"We then have a quality control team that goes through those counted images and marks off the pen boundary," explains John Gibson, Precision Ag Specialist for Crop Quest, developers of HeadCount. "So, we're only counting the cattle in the pen of interest. They also double-check the software to make sure it didn't count any shadows, pieces of concrete, water tanks, cowboys, or any other artifacts in the image."

What's more, the quality control specialists look for cattle that may be lying in a shadow or riding one another to make sure the head count is accurate. HeadCount returns the images of each pen with each animal individually marked. The feedyard then compares the image against the head count in their software. If the counts match, all is good. If they don't, it's only then that it's time to enlist human assistance.

Even if pens are scattered from one end of the yard to the other, Gibson says the drone can capture all the images in around 20 minutes. From the time the feedyard submits the list of pens to be flown until it receives counted images is three to four hours.

Not only do employees get head counts quickly and accurately, but the process is stress-free for cattle. The drone is completely unintrusive, so cattle don't notice as it's flying overhead. That's opposed to being gathered into the drover's alley and then counted back into the pen or pushed up to the feed bunk and counted into the back of the pen. Used in this manner, a drone count can help dodge the potential for bruises, dark cutters, and weight loss, all direct financial hits on the end product at the packing plant.

Discovering the possibilities of drones

A drone can fly all year long. It can buck winds up to 25 mph, but it's best to wait for the weather to clear, especially if it's raining or snowing. While counting pens of market-ready cattle is the most frequent use of drones for livestock management, it doesn't take much time to think of many more potential uses.

Additionally, feedyards use drones to conduct full feedyard audits, Young says. Bank examiners can get an accurate count when they want to audit head counts on cattle on which they have loans.

Beyond that, how much more efficient can a feedyard manager be with a drone and an infrared camera? The drone could fly pens and find cattle that are spiking a temperature. It could fly the feed mill and locate bearings or augers running hot. It could fly feed bunks, allowing the feed caller to be more time efficient.

Once cattle are shipped, a drone could be programmed to fly empty pens to determine how much dirt work and maintenance needs done. It could fly over water tanks to see if they're leaking or check the amount of commodities on hand.

If custom-fed cattle are shipping, a drone can help verify head count with the owner. And it's not outside the realm of possibility that one could employ a drone to photograph or video customers' pens of cattle at various times during the feeding period and send those images to owners so they can see that their cattle are happy and comfortable.

That's just a few of the more obvious things. By letting your mind wander a little, it's easy to come up with a much longer list.

Getting set up is easy. For a very low initial investment, the feedyard buys a drone. Then the team visits the yard and trains staff on how to use it and the associated software.

Looking ahead

With Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) ear tags, capturing individual animal data and recording it in an integrated feedyard management solution is seamless. Integrating the images that drones for livestock management capture will be just as easy.

That delivers an even higher level of efficiency, according to Gibson. "The way I look at it, clicks are seconds." He explains that working through different platforms just requires more time and training. "When you have turnover, this will be one less thing on which you need to train somebody."

In addition, Young stresses the drone won't replace anybody. Quite the opposite. Given current-day labor struggles, it frees employees up for other tasks. "It's not taking a job away," Young says. "We just take a burden away so they can do more important things."

Interested in learning more?

For more information on the use of drone technology for livestock management, visit Also see