The extent to which drones could be helpful as a monitoring aid when checking sheep is being investigated as part of a trial in Australia.
Seeking to establish the value of drones in a sheep farming system, the Boort BestWool/BestLamb Group in Australia is trialling their use on a number of sheep farms.
While there is evidence to suggest drones are being used more frequently in agriculture for monitoring crops and pasture to using them to herd sheep in some parts of the world, project coordinator Erica Schelfhorst felt there was little information about their use for checking livestock.
Five producers from the Boort group are directly involved in the co-funded Agriculture Victoria/Meat and Livestock Australia ‘drones for monitoring sheep welfare’ trial, which started last year and will conclude at the end of 2021.
Ms Schelfhorst says: “Farmers [taking part in the project] were interested in trialling some new technology and decided they would like to see how a drone could be used on-farm to monitor sheep welfare during lambing and at other times of the year.
“They are interested in drone technology and what it can do for them. There is a lot of hype about how useful the drones are in agriculture but not many practical examples of their functionality.”
Some of the main factors being examined include identifying if the drone disturbs ewes and lambs and to what level, determining if the drone can pick up any welfare issues and measuring the time taken to check the flock. Another key question related to time, and whether using a drone would allow for more frequent sheep welfare monitoring and offer any savings in labour.
During the trial, it was observed that sheep were not disturbed when the drone was at a distance or when the drone was overhead above 30 metres (98 feet) and travelling slowly or hovering.
Sheep flight response was triggered when the drone was at less than 30m (98ft) or was travelling at speed at any height.
A GoPro drone was used during the first year of the trial. It was manually controlled and had a range of one-kilometre with a battery life of about 20 minutes, allowing for flight altitude and speed to be recorded on the video footage
While the distance and battery limitations of the GoPro drone made multiple monitoring checks difficult, one member found the drone very useful for checking whether any sheep were stuck in an irrigation channel.
Another member used the drone to check water troughs over summer.
By measuring the drone’s time and distance travelled from the video footage, it was found that the drone was quicker to undertake this task compared to the normal practice of driving. The farmer could also see that one water trough needed repair.
Ms Schelfhorst says: “Exactly how much time the drones will save and whether they can truly replace the human experience, skill and know-how remain to be seen, but expectations are high just one year into the three-year demonstration project.
“While the jury is still out, the sheep producers involved are at least increasing their technical skill and knowledge, while testing the value of using drones in keeping a valuable eye on their animals’ welfare.”
The next stage of the trial will further examine whether drones can enable more frequent sheep welfare checks.
Ms Schelfhorst is looking into options for obtaining a number of different types of drones. Newer drones, for example, have an increased battery life, which could be an advantage for multiple monitoring checks and can travel up to 10 kilometres.