Curriculum introducing drones as cost effective tools for improved efficiency in ecologically and socially responsible management of livestock grazing

Final report for FNC20-1210

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2020: $8,980.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Pigeon River Farm
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Robert Braun
Pigeon River Farm
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Established in 2003, Pigeon River Farm is a family owned and farmed 50-acre Organically-Operated facility located on the southern branch of the Pigeon River near Clintonville in Waupaca County, Wisconsin. Pigeon River Farm’s AWA certified chickens and livestock are pastured according to free range, rotational grazing practices.

Pigeon River Farm’s livestock and chickens are rotated through paddocks of high quality legumes and grasses. The legumes and grasses are then allowed to rest and re-grow, working with natural relationships and biological processes in order to:

* Keep chickens and livestock healthy and productive,
* Reduce the need for off-farm inputs;
* Preserve and improve natural resources;
* Protect habitat for wildlife;
* Produce high quality meat and eggs for local food systems,
* Secure farm sustainability for current and future generations

Pigeon River Farm currently raises:

* Layer hens housed in proprietary mobile shelters that are moved in the pasture on a 1-to-3 day basis in conjunction with the cattle and goats
* Scottish Highland Beef Cattle
* Meat Goats.


Traditional ag-technology programs do not currently include curriculum introducing drone technology as an effective farm management tool. The project will develop a 2-hour “drone use for livestock grazing operations” curriculum module in Worldwide Instructional Design System (WIDS) format for ag-technology instructors and other educators.  This curriculum module will be easily inserted into current ag-technology courses at the discretion of the educator. The curriculum will also be easily adaptable for use in a field day venue with live drone demonstration.

The multi-media WIDS-format curriculum module will present real-life examples of the ecologically sound, economically viable and socially responsible use of drones on Pigeon River Farm. Examples will include research data and footage demonstrating such things as:

  • Time and money saved using drones in routine grazing livestock monitoring and close inspection activities versus conventional in-person methods;
  • Ecological / environmental benefits of using drones versus conventional in-person grazing livestock monitoring methods;
  • Stress reduction by drone use when conventional in-person grazing livestock monitoring methods are either dangerous or unattainable.

The finished curriculum will be released to secondary and post-secondary ag-technology programs.  Multi-faceted feedback and effectiveness from the ag-technology programs will be compiled and documented in the final report.

Project Objectives:
  1. Establish benchmark by researching and documenting effects of Drone Technology in pasture management compared to conventional methods.
  2. Present early project concept at June 2019 MREA Energy and Sustainable Agricultural Fair in Custer, Wisconsin.
  3. Present / demonstrate proof of concept in September 2020 field day(s).
  4. Develop a 2 hour multi-media curriculum module in WIDS format for easy integration into ag-technology programs.
  5. Distribute finished curriculum module to ag-technology programs through website, social media, and live presentations.
  6. Compile multi-faceted feedback and effectiveness data from ag-technology programs into a final project report.


Materials and methods:

The project will initially verify the savings of time, money, and resources Pigeon River Farm has experienced by using drones. This will be done by establishing a benchmark of the time, money and resources expended without the use of drones for a 10-day period. The same data will then be collected over a 10-day period while using drones. A comparison analysis and formal report will then be completed including functional benefits and limitations of both methods.

Daily drone flights will routinely observe and document many factors, including:

  • Cattle and goats movement within the paddock and pasture;
  • Potential cattle or goat distress, aggression, or agitation;
  • Possible cattle or goat breeding or birthing;
  • Possible predator activity;
  • Fencing infrastructure
  • Poultry over watch of conditions not seen on the ground

Night-time drone monitoring flights with thermal imaging will also be conducted for comparison.

Monthly project reports will be prepared by compiling and analyzing the month’s data.  These reports will be used to prepare formal multimedia presentations and informational/educational materials and will be ultimately used in the curriculum module. This will benefit farmers and ranchers with verified drone data from a live case study introducing the potential benefits of drone technology to the overall agricultural infrastructure.

The project will also hold field days to present project findings to local educators and the greater farming community. This will further benefit educators, farmers, and ranchers by allowing educators and local farmers first-hand experience in the relative ease of operating a drone.

The curriculum module will include videos and PowerPoints showing the drone's view, the operator controlling the drone, and a “bird’s eye” view taken from a second drone for a complete understanding of the operations.

Multi-faceted feedback and effectiveness from all curriculum users will be compiled into a final project report and distributed to project stakeholders.

Research results and discussion:

Final Report:

Intangible Outcomes:

Ecologically and environmentally, our research revealed that drone use can eliminate soil compaction caused by the frequent use of conventional vehicles. Practically, our research revealed that drones can also allow on-farm monitoring when flooding, muddy ground, or deep snow prohibit conventional in-person methods. Drones also offer more frequent environmental farm observations with a significantly enhanced aerial perspective. This same drone-based  perspective can provide a farmer with documentation regarding prevention of soil erosion, soil health, water quality, etc. with video and still pictures unobtainable by any other method. Additionally, drones do not produce harmful emissions through the use of fossil fuels used in conventional vehicles or ATVs.

Physiologically and psychologically, as we grow older we have personally realized a significant  reduction in labor and related stress through the use of drones. Additionally, drones can be used in sub-zero temperatures, improving safety conditions for farmers that would otherwise be forced to endure the danger of the extreme cold. Most of the in-person farm inspections are also done alone by one person, increasing the inherent risk of a potential injury in the field.  Remote inspection by drone eliminates this risk for the farmer.

Practically, our research revealed that drones also provide a unique perspective with potential  benefits for livestock. Combined with high-resolution photo and video technology, drone use  has allowed us to perform enhanced close inspection and attention to detail previously only achieved by in-person inspection. Robert Braun has monitored cattle activity on the farm by  hovering above the herd for as long as 20 minutes. The information he gathered included the aggressive action of one animal towards another. Such behavior is often difficult to observe at ground level. This type of information could lead to better herd management by putting groups of animals together that are least combative. The introduction of the project concept, demonstrations, and initial release of the curriculum produced by the project have also received excellent feedback from farmers, agricultural leaders, educators, and students (see Exhibit 2 and Exhibit 3 beginning on Page 14). The complete curriculum package is posted online for stakeholder review and/or distribution at
Drone Support info files

Research Methodology:

The project initially verified the savings of time, money, and resources Pigeon River Farm has experienced by using drones. This was accomplished by establishing the following benchmarks for daily livestock inspections over a 10-day period:

  1. Time, money, and resources expended without the use of a drone or an ATV;
  2. Time, money, and resources expended using an ATV without the use of a drone;
  3. Time, money, and resources expended using a drone.

The tables below contain the benchmark data for comparison, along with comparative data for additional routine farm-management inspections.

Cost and Time report:

(East Pasture)      
  Drone Minutes Walking Minutes ATV Minutes
Day 1 Summer of 2021 7 36 12
Day 2 Summer of 2021 6 25 13
Day 3 Summer of 2021 6 24 13
Day 4 Summer of 2021 9 29 16
Day 5 Summer of 2021 6 28 14
Day 6 Summer of 2021 13 24 21
Day 7 Summer of 2021  10 32 17
Day 8 Summer of 2021  6 34 18
Day 9 Summer of 2021 7 19 10
Day 10 Summer of 2021 9 26 15
10 Day Total Minutes 79 277 149
Daily Average Minutes 7.9 27.7 14.9
Daily Average Labor Cost* $4.35 $15.24 $8.20
Daily Average Equipment Operation Cost $0.25 N/A $3.00
  $4.60 $15.24 $11.20
* Labor Cost of $0.55 per Minute is based upon the US Bureau of Labor Statistics National Hourly
               Wage Estimates for Farmers, Ranchers, and Other Agricultural Managers of $32.73
  Drone Walking ATV
Fence inspection 1.5 miles 7 min 45 min 15 min
Frequency of Fence inspection per week 7X 1X 2X
Pasture inspection 15 Min 120 Min 40 Min



PowerPoint for Educators and Farmers:

SARE Final Report 010922 Effective Use of Drones on the Farm Video URL links


Outcome letters:


YouTube Drone Videos:

SARE Fence Inspection Video.mp4

Script: Fence Inspection

SARE Pasture Inspection Video.mp4

Script: Pasture Inspection

SARE Goat & Sheep Management Video.mp4

Script: Goat & Sheep Management

SARE Horse Management Video.mp4

Script: Horse Management

SARE Poultry Management Video.mp4

Script: Poultry Management

SARE Cattle Management Video.mp4

Script: Cattle Management

Educator Worksheets and Test questions with answer Key:

WI Teaching Standards

Fence Video Segment:
Fencing is one of the most crucial infrastructure components on our farm, and scheduled daily  fence inspections are an important part of our ongoing preventative maintenance program. Drones allow us to perform routine fence inspections regardless of adverse or dangerous field  conditions such as deep mud, snow, or extreme temperatures.

Review Questions:
1. List 3 benefits of using drones to perform your fence inspection.
2. List 3 items that you may be looking for while doing your initial inspection.
3. Each day Pigeon River farm begins their day with a ____________.
    A. Rapid Fly by B. Initial Flyby C. Quick Fly by D. Preliminary Flyby
4. What may the drone sensors in the avoidance system not recognize?
    A. Livestock B. Utility Lines C. High Tinsel Fencing D. Crops
5. What type of lighting may be needed to identify arching in your fence?
     A. Low Light Environment B. Limited visibility C. Direct Sunlight D. Midday light
Answer Key:
1. Increased efficiency, reduced cost, ability to check the fence in any weather, reduced
compaction and damage to pastures.
2. Trouble spots, down tree limbs, broken or damaged fence posts, broken insulators
3. A
4. C
5. A


Pasture Video Segment:
Healthy pasture conditions are paramount to healthy livestock and poultry at Pigeon River Farm, and daily pasture inspections are an important part of our ongoing farm maintenance program.  Drones allow us to perform routine pasture inspections regardless of adverse or dangerous field  conditions such as deep mud, snow, or extreme temperatures.

Review Questions:
1. What items in the pasture can be observed during a flyover with the drone?
2. What does the downward draft of the drones propellers show you in the field?
3. What height and speed is recommended for the drone when performing a general fly over
     of the pasture?
4. Pigeon River Farms compiles their drone data after each flight. How is this data used on
    the farm?
5. Flying at a low altitude can present new challenges and obstacles. What are some of these
    challenges and obstacles?
Answer Key
1. Livestock patterns, forage concentration, forage consumption, pasture quality before, during, and after foraging, dung beetle, and fly population.
2. Height and thickness of forage in the pasture
3. 90 ft at 5 mph
4. Patterns in the pasture, especially throughout the growing season, can be used by your agronomist.
5. Curious livestock, trees, fences, tall grass, and plants

Horse Segment:
In this segment we will demonstrate the efficient and effective use of a drone for managing horses. Although horses don't have any natural aerial predators, they are very sensitive to any changes or unusual noises in their environment.
Review Questions
1. How should you first approach horses with a drone?
2. What negative characteristics should you be watching for when first introducing a drone to a horse? How should you respond to these characteristics?
3. What are some characteristics of your herd and horses you can observe from the unique birds eye perspective of a drone?
Answer Key
1. Slowly, indirectly, steady, start a distance of 90 ft and hover for 10 min, if receptive slowly move closer.
2. Skittish and anxious behavior, Increase distance from the herd until they become more comfortable.
3. Grazing habits, herd dynamics, health and wellbeing of the herd

Goats Segment:
In this segment we will demonstrate the efficient and effective use of a drone in managing goats and sheep. Goats and sheep have a natural fear of aerial predators. To reduce the fear factor, we will begin our flight by slowly moving the drone into range and hovering as steady as possible at approximately 90 feet. With repetition the herd will also quickly become accustomed to the noise of the drone from this altitude.
Review Questions
1. Goats have a fear of _________

A. Shadows B. Aerial Predators C. Other types of Livestock D. Drones

1. What techniques should be used to help the goats become accustom to the use of a drone?
2. What issues can be spotted in a herd of goats?
3 How long will it take for the goats to become agitated? A2 min B. 5 min C. 1 min D. 30 seconds
3. At what height is it recommended that you fly a drone to do a close inspection on the herd?
A. 20 ft B 50 ft C 100 ft D 75

Answer Key
1. B
2. Slowly fly into range, hover around 90 ft altitude for 10 min to help them become accustomed to the noise,
3. Herd behavior, identify aggression patterns within the herd
4. C
5. B


Poultry Segment:
In this segment we will demonstrate the efficient and effective use of a drone to manage poultry. Utilizing a drone to manage poultry can be very beneficial. With the popularity of pastured poultry operations, many farmers try this for the first time or expand the current Flock.

Review Questions
1. Describe the two approaches to flying a drone around your poultry flock.
2. Why would you allow the drone to hover over your flock for an extended period of time?
3. At what angle should you not approach your flock with a drone?
4. Two rules using a drone around poultry _________ and ___________.
A. Quick and short B. Slow and Steady C. smooth and silent D. Short and sweet
Answer Key
1. A. Hover above the flock and slowly drop down closer to the birds
    B. Bring the drone down to a relatively low height of 10 ft and approach the herd keeping a parallel trajectory with the ground.
2. To allow them to become accustom and used to the noise of the propellers
3. 45 degrees
4. B. Slow and Steady


Cattle Segment:
In this segment, we will demonstrate the efficient and effective use of a drone to manage cattle.
Utilizing a drone for cattle management is a highly efficient tool. Of all the livestock we have, cattle seem to be best suited for drone managing.

Review Questions
1. Are cattle more concerned over the noise of the drone or seeing the drone?
2. What are some items that you can observe about a new born calf when using a drone?
3. What characteristics of your herd can be observed while hovering over it with a drone?
4. When observing cattle eating with a drone you may be able to observe ___________.
     A. Animal eating habits B. Mouth sores C. Pace of foraging D. All of the above
5. Flying a drone in cold weather presents all of the following challenges except _______.
     A. Reduce battery life B. Propeller ice up C. Camera fog up
6. List three things in the pasture that can be observed during inclement weather in the

Answer Key
1. The noise of the drone
2. General health, body condition, sex, and nursing
3. Foraging by each animal, bumping, establishing order, dominance, general health, pasture grazing patterns
4. D. All of the above
5. C. Camera Fog
6. Feed supply, weather impacts of feed, checking for injury during to weather and pasture condition, check in during calving season, reduce risks to farmers while venturing out to observe the pasture.

WI Teaching Standards

PST1.s Use geospatial technologies in agricultural applications
PST1.r Apply technology principles in the use of agricultural technical systems
IMT3.a Adopt new technological tools to increase personal and organizational productivity
IMT3.b Select and use communication and information technology to help solve problems and
provide opportunities
4C1.a Develop original solutions, products and services to meet a given need.
4C1. B Work creatively with others to develop solutions, products and services.

Participation Summary
50 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

6 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Journal articles
11 On-farm demonstrations
1 Online trainings
1 Published press articles, newsletters
2 Tours
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

28 Farmers participated
6 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Starting the process of contacting educators, farm consultants, and farmers to inform them that this curriculum is available for their review. At the grass works conference on January 20, 2022. I plan on meeting up with as many educators and interested parties as possible to promote the curriculum.

Between the summer of 2020 and 2021, we had approximately 30 farmers observe the drone being utilized around livestock. This was a combination of guests on our farm and tours of their farm to demonstrate the viability of utilizing a drone and to gather data based on the interaction with the livestock on the participating farm. Additionally, we had a number of agricultural educators come to the farm to see the drone interacting with the livestock. On July 22, 2020, I participated in a GrassWorks event that was geared toward introducing K-12 students into the agricultural industry. This was an excellent opportunity to show young people some of the advanced tools that are being utilized in sustainable agriculture. August 4, 2020 the drone project was written up in AGRI-VIEW  newspaper and we received excellent feedback from farmers within our local community and the farm. Additionally, channel 5 TV out of Green Bay Wisconsin did a segment on the drone project on their Saturday morning farm show. This was done in conjunction with Fox Valley Technical College on the farm during the filming to add technical feedback while the drone was being used to manage cattle.

Our August 19 field demonstration day was very successful. We had a total of 15 pasture-based livestock farmers and agricultural educators attend our pasture walk/drone demonstration. A complete tour of the farm was given to familiarize the attendees with the size and scope of the operation. Next two drones were utilized showing the attendees the efficiency and ease of use. The group gathered into our shop after the drone demonstration and were treated to refreshments and a light meal. The curriculum was presented with a projector showing the videos. Great feedback was given and is being utilized as we work toward the final product.



The Pigeon River Farm Project Team would like to express our special thanks to the following individuals and businesses for their key role in our project’s success:

  • Rachel Bouressa, Bouressa Family Farm, New London WI
  • Eileen Lamm, Lamm Farms, Clintonville WI
  • Steve Rosenow, Rosenow Farm, New London WI
  • Alvin Miller, Miller Farm, Marion WI
  • Justen Seeger, Maple Valley Farm, Marion WI
  • Dan Braun, Pine Hill Farm, Marion WI
  • Dale Knaack, Knaack Dairy Farm, Marion WI
  • Wayne Schmude, Hilltop Dairy Goats, Clintonville WI
  • Josh Laatsch, Technical Support, Caroline WI
  • Tim Laatsch, Laatsch Dairy Farm “Goats”, Tigerton WI
  • Dale Muschamp, Technical Support, Clintonville WI
  • Dale Johnson, Century Sunflower Oil Farm, Pulaski WI
  • Dan Hintz, Hintz Dairy Farm, Marion WI
  • DroneU, Technical support, Albuquerque NM
  • Tanner Allender, Cattle and Horse Support, Clintonville WI


Learning Outcomes

50 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

The drone is utilized in a diverse array of settings while developing the curriculum on different farms and different livestock. Confidence continues to build around the viability of utilizing the drone in a day-to-day livestock management environment. A variety of techniques have been developed and are being integrated into the curriculum.

The data and video gathering have intensified in scope and quantity during the spring and early summer of 2021. With it being easier to make farm visits and interact with livestock experts this year versus last we are getting very close to full production of the training modules. We are taking advantage of the good weather and easy access to farms to verify concepts that will be integrated into the curriculum.

Project Outcomes

2 New working collaborations

It is our recommendation that the curriculum produced by this project continues to be refined, widely promoted and distributed to secondary and post-secondary agricultural education programs and additional farming industry informational networks such as SARE, NRCS, technical colleges and farming industry informational networks. We further recommend that feedback and effectiveness data be collected from all curriculum users, and that the data collected to be used to enhance the curriculum and develop additional modules in the same manner to maximize the benefits to a wider spectrum of agricultural stakeholders.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.