Livestock ranching is hard work. For those who undertake the timeless way of life, daylight is a dear friend that often doesn’t hang around long enough to get everything done. The list of tasks is never ending. Ranchers and farmers not only face the physical challenges of managing livestock, crops, and infrastructure over large areas, but they also face the daily challenges of running a business. To further complicate matters, mother nature and market conditions often present strong seasonal headwinds.
In any operation, including the business of agriculture, those that can effectively collect data, interpret information, and prioritize tasks come out ahead. In the fighter pilot world, we call this the “OODA” loop. OODA is an acronym for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. Air Force Colonel John Boyd authored the OODA loop in the 1970’s, and he firmly believed those who iterate through the loop faster would win in air combat. Boyd’s wisdom spread beyond the Air Force; operators, athletes, and businessmen have applied Boyd’s tenets in competitive arenas far beyond tactical aviation. In recent years, technology advancements have significantly improved the speed and effectiveness of decision-making processes across many industries. Technology tools, when appropriately applied to the right problem, can make tremendous improvements to operational effectiveness.
New Technologies Shaping Agricultural Operations
A confluence of technologies, such as GPS, wireless communication, drones, and data analytics are helping farmers realize tremendous gains in crop yields. However, technology has yet to make a significant impact on the livestock industry. Sure, there have been minor advances such as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and software tools for herd management, but the overall impact of technology on the livestock industry is insignificant when compared to crop farming.
The tides are about to turn for those that raise livestock. The falling costs of technology hardware, improvements in computer automation, and the development of low-cost, wireless networks will enable technology solutions to penetrate the livestock industry at scale. We see Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN), drones, and data analytics as three distinct technologies that will greatly benefit livestock managers.
LPWAN is designed for long-range, low data rate transmissions, and most of the networks utilize unlicensed radio frequencies. The result of low data rate and open frequencies is a very affordable wireless network. The transmissions have the added benefit of being very low power, and sensors can operate for years on a small battery. The combination of long-range, low power, and low cost makes this technology perfect for large area agricultural monitoring applications. Some networks also have two-way communication capability, allowing operators to control remote systems (either by human command or via computer automation). Below are some of the capabilities enabled by LPWAN.
Drones give ranchers the ability to have an on-demand “eye in the sky”. The FAA recently gave a boost to commercial drone operations with a new set of Small Unmanned Aircraft Regulations, titled FAA Part 107. The release of Part 107 opens up commercial drone operations to ranchers because they are now able to operate the drones themselves. Before Part 107, the FAA required commercial drone operators to have an actual pilot’s license and all commercial operations required at least two people--the pilot and a visual observer. The FAA removed both of these restrictions. Ranchers who obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate, a relatively insignificant task when compared to getting a manned Pilot Certificate, can conduct drone operations without a visual observer.
With the right drone systems and software, ranchers can assess grassland health, locate invasive plants, monitor habitat, conduct wildlife inventories, locate lost livestock, and more. Part 107 allows the operation of drones from moving vehicles over sparsely populated areas, giving ranchers the opportunity to have a drone orbiting overhead while they are traveling in vehicles or on horses. The aerial vantage point could prove valuable during roundups and searches for lost livestock in rough terrain and forests--drones with infrared sensors will be particularly useful in this scenario. Drones can be significantly cheaper and more flexible than manned aircraft for areas of approximately 10 square miles or less.
Despite these enticing capabilities, the true realization of drone applications is at least a few years away. Current regulations require all drone operations to occur during the day, and drones must be kept within line-of-sight (approximately one-half to one mile, depending on drone size and color). Regulations will continue to evolve, and eventually drones will be allowed to make long-distance, fully autonomous flights, day or night. You can thank Google, Amazon, and others for pouring millions of dollars into the technology and political battles that surround autonomous drone operations. Long-range, autonomous drones will allow ranchers to check on their entire ranch at a time of their choosing...weather permitting of course. Below is a list of current and future ranching applications for drones.
That being said, getting value out of drones requires safe and efficient flight operations, effective data management procedures, and detailed computer analysis using the appropriate computer software. While the drone industry is continuing to make these tasks easier, operators must take care to learn about and even practice drone operations before jumping into commercial applications.
The result of wireless sensors and high-resolution drone imagery will be tons of data. When you combine individual ranch data with publicly available sources of information, such as weather patterns and market conditions, you have an overwhelming amount of information. Don’t worry; you will not have to stare at spreadsheets of numbers until you are blue in the face. New data management methods and software programs can turn an inordinate amount of numbers into easy to understand charts and actionable insights. These insights will help livestock ranchers improve efficiency, reduce costs, and improve profits.
No doubt, technology has the potential to drive large-scale operational efficiencies in the livestock business. However, we also realize that raising livestock will continue to be hard work. Technology will not solve that. At the end of the day, the interactions of ranchers and farmers with their animals is the foundation of raising healthy and profitable livestock. We see technology as a tool to help ranchers reclaim precious time and make their interactions more purposeful and productive. We also hope ranchers can enjoy additional benefits of efficiency, such as more resources to expand the business and more time to spend with family and friends.
Please let us know about your desires for livestock and ranch management technology. Reach us here, or sign up below for our newsletter to learn more about these developing technologies.