High-Angle View

Counting Cattle By Drone More Than Just Cool

Timothy Gertson bought a Phantom 3 Advanced drone for fun then found it paid for itself in saved time and effort. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer photo by Karl Wolfshohl)

Record-breaking rains flooded southeast Texas in the summer of 2016, drowning crops, covering roads and turning pastures into vast lakes. Cattle moved to high ground on the ranch of a friend of the Gertson family, near Lissie, Texas. The rancher was concerned but couldn't reach them to count them.

"He had cows stranded on a place that became an island in the middle of the floodwaters," Timothy Gertson said. "He was trying to figure out whether they were all there, but he couldn't get a helicopter right away, so he called my Uncle John. We went over and sent up the drone."

The drone (UAS, UAV) in this case is a Phantom 3 Advanced model made by DJI. After several flyovers, it showed all the cattle had made it to high ground. "I recorded everything," Gertson said. "Then we came back and put it [video] on the big-screen TV. We played it and paused it, and played it and paused it until we had counted them all. That was pretty cool. It didn't make anybody money, but it put the guy's mind at ease."


This engineer and fifth-generation rice farmer has used his drone heavily since purchasing it in October 2015. He uses it for an eye in the sky when he and his dad, Ronald Gertson, or his cousin and farming partner, Daniel Gertson, are turning water onto their crop. They also have flown the drone to assess damage to a field of organic corn when feral hogs invaded and tore up the crop.

"I use mine for visual observation," Timothy Gertson said. "I started using it in rice last season, and it's probably paid for itself 10 times over. I use it in early season when we're watering up the rice for the first time ... to figure out where the water is in the middle of the field. I can put it up in the air in two minutes, and it saves a lot of wear and tear on my four-wheeler."


Gertson has weighed the advantages and disadvantages of NIR (near-infrared) field mapping and crop scouting, and decided not to take that plunge.

"If you use NIR, you process the imagery then get a vegetative index of the field," he said. Ideally, he would use it to determine fertilizer requirements for midseason application. In Gertson's rice scenario, such applications are done with an airplane. Variable-rate applications require special equipment few aerial applicators have. "Even if you come up with somebody who has it, that application will cost more per acre," Gertson said.


Rural internet speeds are another obstacle.

An NIR field map can be of great value, but, "You get it by mapping your field with hundreds of photos that the software stitches together," he said. "Most of rural America doesn't have that kind of bandwidth. I can't send hundreds of photos. It takes forever. This also gets into the issue of 'big data.' Who owns the data?"

Still, Gertson is a fan of the UAV. The first time he flew the drone over a flooding field, it changed his game: "I put it 40 or 50 feet in the air, and started seeing fields from a whole different perspective," he said. "I could immediately see where the water was."



-- The drone's controller can be operated with a smartphone, but Timothy Gertson has found that an iPad Mini equipped with a sunshade is his ideal combination.

-- Video transmission range varies among brands and models, so check before you buy. "Usually, when a drone is cheap but looks nice, and has all the features, transmission range is why it's cheap," Gertson said.

-- Check battery life. For Gertson, his UAV's 20-minute battery life is adequate. But, also buy extra batteries. While you're at it, get a multi-battery charger, a 12-volt charger to operate from your pickup, a high-speed memory chip and a carrying case that will allow storage of the UAV with its propellers mounted to save time.

-- Be aware of the timing for your flights. "You have to work the daylight when you're looking at plants," Gertson said. "When they are small, and the sun is high, it will look like there are no plants there."

-- Consider upgrading to carbon fiber propellers to replace standard plastic ones. Carbon fiber props chip more easily than plastic, Gertson said, but they spin more easily and slightly increase battery life.

-- Follow every rule, and there are many. Get a Federal Aviation Administration Part 107 license for commercial operations. Register your UAV immediately with the FAA. Be careful where you fly, which should be in Class G (unregulated) airspace more than five miles from any airport.

For more information, visit www.faa.gov/uas