Cattle ranches experiment with drones to keep track of animals

Border collies could one day be phased out of a job on cattle ranches across Alberta and B.C. and replaced by a high-tech alternative — drones.

B.C. ranches already using drones, along with some feedlots in Alberta

John Church is the Cattle Research Chair in the department of Natural Resource Science at Thompson Rivers University. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)

Border collies could one day be phased out of a job on cattle ranches across Alberta and B.C. and replaced by a high-tech alternative — drones.

"It was about two-and-a-half years ago I saw some kids playing with a toy drone and I realized they had a camera on that drone and I thought to myself, 'we could use this to observe cattle in pastures,'" John Church, the cattle research chair at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. told The Homestretch.

"We can see the video feedback in real time, so for me, I thought, 'wow, if we wanted to inspect cattle or look over that ridge or look in that grove of trees, we can use these drones to extend our vision."

Many ranchers graze their herds on large swaths of Crown land over the summer months, said Church, which can make keeping track of them tough.

"Most of the animals make their way down the mountain when the snow starts to fly on their own, but a small percentage stay up on the mountain," he said.

Cattle graze on the Grazed Right cattle ranch near Black Diamond. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Right now, tracking wayward cattle can be a time-consuming endeavour — ranchers saddle up and go looking for them — and sometimes it's an expensive one.

"Many will actually hire a helicopter, but those are very expensive. They're $1,000 to $1,500 [per hour] and the ranchers can only afford to hire them to come once for about four hours," said Church.

"If they had a drone or an unmanned vehicle of their own, they could use that and wouldn't have to have this expense. And the nice thing is once they had it, they can fly it as much as they want."

Ranches around Kamloops as well as parts of the Okanagan and around Golden have been using drones for the past few years, a practise now making its way into Alberta.

Two hours to two minutes

Second-year TRU student Clay Harsany has spent the summer flying the drones for a feedlot operation near his hometown of High River.

"Counting cattle in feed yards is a very [tedious] job. On average it takes two to three hours… and you have to do it every morning," he said.

"So we came up with the idea, why can't we take a drone and place it 80 to 100 metres in the air and take pictures of each individual pen and then relay that information back to the computer and see if we can find a software company that will count the cattle automatically."

That's exactly what they did.

"It takes a two- to three-hour job and turns it into a two-minute job," said Harsany.

It also makes finding cattle easier.

Harsany was recently tasked with finding nine errant head of cattle.

"As soon as they see humans, cattle are smart, they'll run back into the bush because they have water and they have food out there so they're pretty content," he said.

"Within an hour, I'd found five or six of them."

With files from The Homestretch