Toys for boys: Drones in agriculture

Using drones to manage cattle has piqued the interest of many ranchers over the past years as their appearance in the media and in the malls becomes more common. This has led some in the agricultural community to wonder if these toys could inject a little practical application (and fun) into their cattle operations.

This notion was reinforced to Gentec in the lead-up to and post-mortem of our recent Forage to Beef Demonstration events hosted with the Foothills Forage and Grazing Association in Southern Alberta July 10th & 11th. When canvassing producers for a (non-genomic) topic of special interest to include, drone use by far generated the most interest. As confirmation, Dr. John Church’s presentation, Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) to Monitor Cattle, garnered many accolades for highlight-of-the-day.

John was raised with a cattle background and went on to develop a passion for drones that he combines with his day-job as Associate Professor and the BC Regional Innovation Chair in Cattle Industry Sustainability at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops BC. In his presentation, he touched on many of the applications below. At Gentec, we did a little digging to see what else we could uncover with respect to drones as they relate to livestock agriculture.

Advances in drone technology, and in particular, the move to multi-rotor design have greatly increased the ease with which the general public, as hobbyists and within a work environment, can control and manoeuvre these aerial vehicles. Improvements in battery life and payload capacity, coupled with inversely-proportionate reductions in price, have caught ranchers’ attention as to how they might use these toys… uhm, “tools” profitably.

Currently, for less than $2,500, you can buy a drone that has a flight time of up to 30 minutes (depending on wind and temperature), speed of 70 kph, range of 8 km—and the ability to record and transmit HD-quality video. With a little imagination and a modification or two, anybody in the cattle industry can now improve and manage their pastures, cattle herd and operational profitability.

The most straightforward application would be monitoring cattle without having to slog through pasture, bush, wind and snow to find them. From a hilltop or roadside, the rancher can make the drone do that miserable job instead. Armed with an infrared camera, the drone can spot animals day or night, and read ear-tags from a height of over 70 m, either visually with an optical zoom or potentially via RFID transmission.

Digital video and expanded sensor technologies are also opening the door to precision pasture and animal management. Infrared technology can “see” below the canopy to find animals in the underbrush. It also provides the potential to take an animal’s “temperature” and remotely identify sick or distressed animals. As a result, it relieves valuable staff time and sends people-power to where it is most urgently needed (precisely “pinned” GPS coordinates).

Similar technologies provide pasture mapping by flying grid-formations over pasture lands that, when combined with computer applications, stitch together topographical maps outlining water / moisture availability, forage and biomass availability and help optimize pasture health, management and rotation. These tools are also increasingly being applied in the ranching and feedlot setting, such as checking on troughs (remote 3D monitoring can check feed depth) and fence integrity; verifying animal inventories in paddock and on pasture; moving livestock, and searching for missing animals.

In fact, the time may not be too far off when ranchers will be able to find and herd cattle using a combination of drone and RFID technology; the drone will be programmed to fly a given route to find an individual animal or conduct a head-count within a defined area; monitor water, salt, and mineral visitation; and provide a status and / or variance report to the rancher.

Taken together, these abilities all aim to make life easier by increasing the timeliness, accuracy, cost effectiveness and convenience of gathering and processing information, and reducing the manpower that is often hard/impossible to find/afford in rural communities.

We finish with a couple of practical tips from the wise:
• Nav Canada regulations apply to the use of drones near populated areas, highways and commercial flight paths, including line-of-sight operational restrictions. Know the law.
• Hone your skills on an inexpensive model. From what we hear… the Force is strong… but there is a learning curve :)!

One step in understanding Canada’s iconic wood bison

There are plains bison and wood bison. Can you tell the difference?

Delta Genomics is developing a test that will tell whether bison are wood, plains or hybrid. The difference is important to conservation and production efforts.

Wood bison are part of Canada’s iconic charismatic megafauna, along with polar bears, caribou, moose and others. With only about 10,000 of them remaining (based on visual inspection of wild herds), the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada has listed the species as having Special Concern. Plains bison, on the other hand, are quite plentiful. If you can’t tell the difference in these images, you’re not alone. So how do we know which to preserve?

“The CanSeq150 project is a science gift to Canada for our country’s 150th birthday last year,” says Delta Genomics CEO, Michelle Miller. “Basically, Canada’s Genomics Enterprise is sequencing 150 new genomes of animal or plant species that have significant scientific, cultural, societal or economic impact to Canada.”

CanSeq150’s goal is for the new genomes to serve as a foundation for biological research projects throughout the country. This initiative brought the beaver genome to Canada’s 150th birthday party, and has since sequenced the Canadian predator-prey duo, the snowshoe hare and lynx in 2017. The project still has an active call out for suggested species.

“We wanted to get the wood bison sequences for a few reasons,” says Michelle. “As part of an on-going project between Delta and the Canadian Bison Association, we are working to better understand the genetics of bison.”

Back in the 1920s, 6,000 plains bison were introduced into Wood Buffalo National Park in Northern Alberta, home to some of the last free-roaming wood bison herds. Yes, the bison interbred. No, there’s no good test to determine if an animal is wood, plains or hybrid. There’s even some debate as to whether they are genetically different. This is one of the questions Delta Genomics is hoping to answer. And for that, it needs lots of bison to sequence. The CanSeq150 project arrived at the perfect time.

The Canadian Bison Association has a two-pronged, synergistic mandate: conservation and production. The project with Delta involves developing the first genomics tools for the industry, which is something it doesn’t have access to yet. Genomics will benefit bison producers and conservationists by improving our ability to differentiate between wood and plains bison. There are three issues to address/answer:

  1. SNP parentage. The only parentage test using SNPs is US-based, which means mailing in samples to the States and paying in US dollars. Many producers don’t bother.
  2. Genetic difference. Is it possible to differentiate the percentage of wood and plains bison in an individual animal?
  3. How much cattle DNA is in an individual animal. Most bison have very little but current measurement methods aren’t very accurate.

“So we’d know how many pure wood bison there really are, from the conservation point of view,” says Michelle. “And on the production side, the knowledge will help producers in the same way that beef breeders maintain parental lines of Angus, Simmental, etc. Bison breeders are the same way. So producers need to know that, as well.”

But back to our original question. At Gentec, we’re not the type to leave you dangling. Here are the answers you’re looking for.