CLINTONVILLE, Wis. – A three-day-old calf was down in a low-lying area filled with ice. Had Robert Braun not seen it with his unmanned-aerial vehicle, the helpless animal would likely have died of hypothermia. That incident in January 2018 alone paid for the equipment, he said. But being able to continually monitor his cattle herd also has brought piece of mind. Sharing that piece of mind with agriculture students and livestock producers is the reason he’s developing a training program that addresses best practices for using unmanned-aerial vehicles.

Braun uses an unmanned-aerial vehicle to monitor livestock at his Pigeon River Farm near Clintonville. He rotationally grazes 35 head of Scottish Highland and Scottish Highland-Angus crossbred cattle. He also has a flock of 400 layers, a small herd of goats and a few horses. Some people may think of the technology as a cool “toy,” but Braun says unmanned-aerial vehicles can be used for practical purposes.

“I fly the drone based on need,” he said. “I do animal-wellness checks.”

He generally flies the vehicle from one to three times daily, flying more frequently during winter months. He flies the perimeter of his 40-acre pasture, which provides him a bird’s-eye view of the condition of his pasture and fencing. That saves him time and money walking or driving to more-distant areas of the farm. He has cut by two-thirds the amount spent on fuel for his four-wheeler, he said.

“I only use it now for specific reasons,” he said.

Flying above plastic-covered hay bales he can identify punctures and quickly patch them to avoid hay spoilage. And he can monitor the condition of buildings and other structures on the farm.

Those practical applications could help other farmers. That’s why he’s developing the best-practices training program. He recently was awarded an $8,980 grant from North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education for a project called “Curriculum introducing drones as cost-effective tools for improved efficiency in ecologically and socially responsible management of livestock grazing.”

Braun is working on curriculum with Jacob Abrahamson, an agricultural teacher and FFA adviser at Wisconsin’s Marion High School. There are about 200 students in Abrahamson’s agriculture classes and 66 students in the FFA chapter.

Braun and Abrahamson plan to develop a two-hour curriculum module in Worldwide Instructional Design System format – WIDS – for educators. The multi-media module will show real-life examples of how an unmanned-aerial vehicle is used on Pigeon River Farm. Examples will include research data in addition to footage. Braun and Abrahamson also plan for the program to be easily adaptable for use in a field day with live demonstrations of unmanned-aerial vehicles. Once they finish the project they plan to offer the curriculum to high school agricultural programs and post-secondary agricultural-technology programs.

There’s a lot of information about using unmanned-aerial vehicles for agronomic purposes, but not so much yet for grazing management, said Sara Maass-Pate, farm-business and production-management instructor for the Fox River Valley Technical College’s Clintonville Regional Center. She would be interested in the data that Braun collects and could possibly include the findings in a future curriculum.

“His ideas are intriguing,” she said.

Braun plans to establish benchmarks by researching and documenting the effects of unmanned-aerial-vehicle technology in grazing management. Daily flights will routinely observe and document several factors.

cattle and goat movement within paddocks and pasture

animal distress, aggression or agitation

animal breeding and birthing

predator activity

fencing infrastructure

poultry monitoring

night-time monitoring flights with thermal imaging for comparisons

Braun will compile, analyze and report data each month for 24 months. Preliminary data will be available in the fall. The reports will be used to prepare multimedia presentations and educational materials, and ultimately will be used in the curriculum module. The module will feature videos and PowerPoint presentations showing views from the unmanned-aerial vehicle and the operator controlling the vehicle, as well as views taken from a second vehicle for a complete understanding of the operations.

A Federal Aviation Administration-certified commercial-drone pilot, Braun earned his license and maintains his certification. Certification involves testing for one’s understanding of global-positioning-system mapping and other technical information. Braun flies a commercial-grade unmanned-aerial vehicle with six rotors and a global-positioning-system compass on board. The compass keeps the vehicle stable in the air as well as during takeoff and landing. That stability enables him to fly the vehicle in winds as strong as 30 miles per hour.

The vehicle’s platform is large and substantial enough that he could carry 15 pounds of seed on board. That would be another practical use for the vehicle – using it to over-seed pastures, he said.

In the fall Braun will begin providing Pigeon River Farm data on YouTube; visit youtube.com and search for "Pigeon River Farm" for more information.

Visit pigeonriverfarm.com and northcentralsare.org for more information.

Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.