A John Deere Publication
Farmer with cowboy hat on with drone remote plugged into cellphone

Rancher Barb Downey uses a drone to count cattle and check heifers' calving progress.

Ag Tech, Livestock/Poultry   December 01, 2023

Sky Eyes


Cattle producers use drone imagery, too.

Barb Downey says counting cows on the Downey Ranch is a little like finding a needle in a haystack.

Downey and her husband, Joe Carpenter, run 550 Angus cows—100 big bulls and 150 yearling bulls—on more than 7,000 acres of grass in the Kansas Flint Hills. 

When the cowboys were gathering the cows one day in an 800-acre pasture that had plenty of brush cover, she used her drone to find where the herd was located. 

"I flew it before the guys even got there, and I knew we didn't have any cows in the West End, so they could skip that. All the cows were three-quarters a mile from the corral, so they could save time finding them," she says. 

It's one of many uses Downey has discovered for her drone, an Autel Robotics EVO II, which she bought online for $4,750. The unit features 38 minutes of flight time per battery, a 5-mile range, and can fly in wind speeds up to 39 miles per hour. 

Above. Locating and counting cattle is just one of the time-saving uses of a drone at Downey Ranch. Ranchers find that drones can zoom in on individual ear tags to locate sick cattle, fly over fence gaps, and check on water systems, too. Downey Ranch owners Joe Carpenter and Barb Downey agree cattle quickly get used to the sound of a drone.


Calving ease. It also has thermal imagery capability, which Downey appreciates during heifer calving season. Their ranch calves about 100 heifers each winter. Downey flies the drone to the heifer pens, and can check calving progress from her kitchen table, rather than trudging to the pens in the middle of the night. 

"With the drone I can see [the heifers] much better using the thermal camera than I can with a visual camera," she says. "If I can see two feet and a nose, the heifer is good to go and I'll check again in a half hour." 

Heifer calving is stressful on animals and ranchers alike. To stay abreast of potential problem births, Downey checks the animals every two to three hours; leading to fitful rest during the night. Using the drone, she can be done in three minutes and then go back to sleep. "A better night's sleep makes all the difference in the world," she says. 

Downey uses the drone to count cattle in the pasture, too. 

"We're running groups of a couple hundred cows and calves, and I would challenge anybody to accurately count 200 pairs coming through a gate. You're going to miss some if they trail through the gate," she says. 

So, she takes a photograph with her drone, downloads the image and uses an online tool called Dot-Dot-Goose, with which she places a dot on each animal as she counts. It takes just a few minutes to tally the animals this way. 

The Autel drone package Downey bought comes with a handheld controller that connects to her smartphone. The built-in software could allow her to fly the ranch's pastures in a pre-set flight path, taking photographs throughout the flight that she could stitch together.  

Endless uses. Downey and Carpenter are among a growing legion of cattle producers using drones, according to Purdue University. John Scott, the university's digital agriculture extension coordinator, says some drones feature high-quality telescopic zoom that can read eartag numbers without disturbing animals. Scott also uses a drone to quickly fly over watering systems in a pasture, to ensure they are working properly.

"You start thinking of things that you can do," Downey says. "The technology has advanced enough, with the internet and apps, that if you think it can be done, I guarantee there is a solution out there." ‡

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