Technology in agriculture is moving at the speed of light — or at least at the speed of flight — and livestock producers are beginning to understand that unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, could have a huge impact on their industry moving forward.
Dale Blasi, Kansas State University Research and Extension specialist, told cattle producers attending a Kansas Livestock Association Range Management Field Day at Moyer Farms near Emporia that drone technology is just on the cusp of what it might mean to the livestock industry as more and more applications for aerial technology become practical on ranches.
He pointed to how much impact drones have already had on crop production and research, with infrared photography from drones providing maps that enable farmers to guide precision application machinery to apply variable rate fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.
Blasi said the fully equipped drone he uses for demonstrations costs about $2,000 and is manufactured in China.
“Made by a Chinese company and relies on Russian satellites; now that’s notable,” Blasi quipped.
He said the drone has obstacle avoidance technology that keeps it from flying into trees, buildings, center pivots or other objects. It can remain airborne for about 30 minutes and is currently equipped with a stock camera.
“Anytime you want to get a good idea of the lay of the land, it’s the view from above that is valuable,” he said. “You can program a done to fly the perimeter of a pasture or give it a path to follow. You can check water gaps, locate cattle, check on heifers. I think it will soon be used for gathering cattle, counting cattle, and checking bunks.”
He said that drones can also be equipped with RFID readers, which would enable cattle identification from the air.
A drone equipped with an infrared camera, commonly used now by row crop farmers to check the health of plants in their fields, could also have a role in the livestock industry, he said.
“You could check pastures, possibly even being able to detect emergence of invasive species such as serecia and old world bluestem,” he said. “You could also tell how healthy your native pasture is and what spots might have overgrazed.”
Blasi said the drone he uses for demonstrations is registered for recreational use, which does not require him to have a pilot’s license. He said regulations prohibit him flying over large gatherings of people or encroaching on airport space. He is also restricted to flying at altitudes below 400 feet. It also requires him to keep the drone within his line of sight while airborne, something that limits the range he can legally fly.
There are also privacy issues and other regulatory uncertainties, he said.
“My advice would be to stay tuned and be aware of this rapidly developing technology, but don’t jump too soon,” Blasi said. “This tool is not a toy. I see great opportunities for it. But it is an investment, and you want to make sure that you know how you’re going to use it before you spend that money.”