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Amuse Bouche: These are the drones you are looking for

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By Scott Mechura EBS COLUMNIST

It seems like in so many aspects of our lives, we are met with adversity and challenges we haven’t faced in decades. But there’s one area where humans are at the top of their game.

We are more efficient and successful than any other time in history when it comes to farming and ranching. And drones, of all things, are playing an increasingly key role in that success.

Ranchers work from sun up to sun down, seven days a week, 365 days a year. And drones are being used for more and more of that work.

While some ranchers still ride horseback, more and more ride a dirt bike or ATV to traverse, on Montana average, about 30 miles a day perusing fence line, looking for holes or breaks. This takes time and fuel to accomplish. With technology and battery improvements, drones are being used for inspecting these fence lines in a fraction of the time.

Drones are also being used to scan pastures for herbage and invasive weeds. This way, they can pinpoint their herbicides and watering to more efficiently manage the land. They can upload hundreds of photos to a server and analyze every pasture as a whole to best determine exactly when to move the herd on to the next.

And here’s where it gets really cool: the animals themselves.

Cows instinctually want to be left alone when they are ready to birth a calf. And this sometimes means the cow will wander far away to be left alone. This means a ranch hand has to be monitoring her without being intrusive enough to push her farther away. With a drone, she can be monitored on everything from heart rate to body temperature. 

A hand can then intervene when it is necessary. In addition, heat tracking is being used to see if a cow or calf is caught in a broken barbed wire fence line, stuck in a bog or experiencing hypothermia.

A rancher in Terry, Montana, was telling me that in certain weather conditions, a cow can self-suffocate in a blizzard. 

Cattle do not have the ability to breathe through their mouth, only their nose. So if temperature and humidity are just right, ice begins to close over the nostrils with every intake of oxygen. This causes the animal to panic as their breathing becomes more labored, which expedites the process. But monitoring via drone in a far-away gully where the cows are taking refuge can help prevent this. 

Placing a GPS tracker in an animal to monitor their location is also useful.

If all heads aren’t accounted for, perhaps a young calf is lost or separated from its mother. And location and heart rate can indicate a possible pursuit by a predator. And since ranchers aren’t really the sit-in-front-of-a-computer type, all these applications can be monitored in real time on their phones,  allowing them free time to … never mind, ranchers still do not have free time. Never hurts to dream though.

The next goal is to determine if there is a way in which drones can move the herd from one pasture to the next. So far there’s only been limited success. They can herd the cattle in theory, but the sight and sound of a drone is naturally unsettling.

Overall, I do think this does much more good than harm. However, being inherently cautious of intrusive technology, I can’t help but recall a scene from 1999’s “The Matrix” in which a drone-like machine spots a human deemed unacceptable and systematically flushes him out as waste.

Silly of course. A drone couldn’t really make a spontaneous decision to dispose of a cow it deemed unacceptable, could it?

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry as well as a former certified beer judge.

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