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Using drones to improve safety and efficiency in cattle yards

As a farmer, business owner and Queensland Safety Ambassador, Shane Webcke knows first-hand how important it is to prioritise safe work and innovation on farms.

Shane and Byron Wolff from Thompson Longhorn discuss how flying drones above stockyards provides real time information on cattle handing, and how the data provided can improve animal flow and worker safety.

Download a copy of this film (ZIP/MP4, 730MB)

Shane Webcke: G’day, I'm Shane Webcke, Queensland Safety Ambassador. As a farmer and a business owner myself, I know firsthand how important it is to work safely on farms. Each year around 45 workers’ compensation claims are accepted for workers who have been injured working in or around a stockyard or feedlot. And half of these claims involve a serious injury where the worker needs five or more days off work. Obviously these injuries need to stop.

That's why it's good today to talk to Byron Wolff, Managing Director of Thompson Longhorn.
Byron, good to see you.

Byron Wolff: Great to be here Shane.

Shane Webcke: Now all things in agriculture seemingly now are about taking up with
technology and everything that comes with that, obviously efficiency, but it has been my view
and I think maybe you'd agree with me, it’s the uptake of that technology that makes number
one, the job more efficient.

Byron Wolff: Sure.

Shane Webcke: But seemingly that goes hand in hand with making it safer. And I’m
assuming, I'm assuming that in your business, which is building stock handling systems and
equipment, it's at the forefront of what you do. Now, you've got a case study about using
drones to analyse, design and improve cattle handling practices. Tell us about that.

Byron Wolff: So, back in 2014, we set about to do an analysis on a whole series of stockyards for a particular client. We had to collect a lot of data and observe what was happening with the people and the livestock in a fairly short period of time. That's when we investigated drones and bought our first drone and went through the process of observing behaviour in cattle yards.

There's a few interesting things you learn when you do that. Drones were excellent in as much as we could get a bird's eye view and the livestock weren't bothered by them and the operators weren't bothered by them. So it gave us the opportunity to be able to have a really clear look at what was happening while people were operating in close proximity to stock, make some observations, and then leading on from that, be able to make some design changes or even operational changes to the way people operated their facilities, based on what we could show them that they were actually doing.

Shane Webcke: So that's both the actions of the people handling the livestock and the actions of the livestock themselves?

Byron Wolff: Absolutely.

Shane Webcke: So what did it tell you? What did you learn? If you're going to pick the most prominent things that came out of it, what was the most important thing that you observed?

Byron Wolff: It's very easy to see when an operator stands in a position that doesn't work well with the flow of livestock, and it's fairly easy to be able to make a fairly simple change. Move their position, or move or change what they're doing and then observe the result. So there's a very short feedback loop on that. It gives you the ability to be able to demonstrate to the end user why the change is required.

Often, you know I guess if we haven't been to a particular site or worked in the cattle yard before, there might be the view that you don't understand, or you haven't worked here before, or you don't know our livestock. Our livestock are different to your livestock.

Shane Webcke: They're all different.

Byron Wolff: They're all different. But it's pretty simple to make a change, and then have a look. You know put the drone back there, watch it again, see what the outcome is, and then easy to demonstrate the result.

Shane Webcke: It'd be fair to say though, it is the use of the drones, which has allowed you to properly be able to look at this because as you say, neither the livestock or the people, because they're unobtrusive and they're sitting up there and they forget they're there. So you actually get a true indication of what really goes on, on a day to day basis.

Byron Wolff: Yeah. You get the unabridged version. There's no pretence. There's no pretending. It's real. And the great thing about seeing what's real is then you can see what will be, to us, it becomes really obvious about what the real change is that needs to happen. So to be able to get the view where there's no outside influence is actually fairly difficult. An observer usually has to be close to the action to see what's happening. Drones allow us to be close to the action, but not change the outcome of the behaviour.

Shane Webcke: Now tell me this, now farmers, and we're both from that background, can be a peculiar breed in as much as sometimes things like someone putting a drone on their place is a completely intrusive thing in their mind. And then of course, what comes out of that? Have you had any pushback, where you put a drone up and you see the operation of the cattle yard, and then you sit down with an owner and you have to show them some pretty uncomfortable stuff, which is occurring. Is there any pushback in terms of, "Well, that's one thing to look at it from a drone, but this is what happens in reality, blah, blah, blah." Do you get any of that?

Byron Wolff: No, I can't think of an example where we've had that. I've got to say that the adoption of technology in agriculture is actually typically quite refreshing, because these people, I guess, traditionally haven't had resources available until the invent of the internet, of course, where all answers are on Google. But before that, they're limited in what resources they can get access to. So therefore they become particularly resourceful breed.

I think it would be fair to say that generally we get quite positive response and even, I think, I can think of one particular example of a yard that we were working in the Northern Territory, where there was a particular stock hand that simply moved up and back a raceway all day, just to simply move livestock. From a drone's perspective, he had a green shirt on, it just looked like there was this green dog, if you like, running up and back the raceway all day, pushing these cattle down.

It was a really good graphic example to the management. And so those type of visual representations make it the type of thing you know that's easy to see the end, easy to see the outcome, easy to see what's going on and therefore accepted well.

Shane Webcke: So when they observe a behaviour that perhaps, you know it's like, we all do these things over a period of years and bad habits tend to creep in. Is there any time where you've done this and put a drone up and what you start to observe is, okay, you're looking for the efficiencies of stock handling, but also the safety aspect of that. Is there any times that they get to look at some behaviours that they've sort of, you know it's become habitual, which are actually quite dangerous, and they're not even really aware that they were doing it?

Byron Wolff: Yeah. I think that's a very, very good point you make, because I think we in the workplace, generally, will slip into those habits where we might've started off with good intentions and then we've sort of made it a bit quicker or cut the corner or whatever it is to get—

Shane Webcke: Like a faster result.

Byron Wolff: To get a different result, you know, or to get a faster result. And then it becomes further and further removed from what the original intention was. It might become all about getting the job done and not necessarily about getting home safe tonight. So, definitely, I think when people get to see this stuff, they can sort of review that and realise that what they're doing, isn't what they actually, in a lot of cases intended to do to begin with.

Shane Webcke: So it occurs to me that drones particularly will be important in a great many agricultural pursuits, but it is worth reminding people that, while work safety laws encourage the use of such technology to reduce work risks, it's the Civil Aviation Safety Authority that has overall responsibility for the drone regulation in Australia. So for people who, if you are considering based on what we're talking about today, using them, contact CASA to discuss the regulations and legislation surrounding commercial drone use in Queensland.

So, I'm thinking about my own self now, we run sheep and which is obviously an industry plagued by the wild dog, dingoes.

Byron Wolff: Sure.

Shane Webcke: So I'm thinking about things that drones, outside of what you've just described, that you've used them for, where they will be useful and all sorts of things come to mind. The number one would be, you know like any sort of feral pests, either tracking pigs, dogs, and then plant pests in crops. Drones really, I think, will become an incredibly important tool for farmers moving forward. Particularly in the time saving aspect of not having to do it on foot in real time.

Byron Wolff: It's a good point you make, because even though we are in the livestock equipment business, we're also actually farmers as well, as you mentioned earlier, and even on our own farming operations, we've used drones to have a look at cropping. And it's quite obvious. In one particular instance, we had an agronomist that was recommending centering watering rates. And we followed that. There was one spot in the paddock where the central pivot irrigator stopped and ran in this one spot. The yield in that area and the change in the crop was actually so obvious from the drone footage, that we could kind of work out that some of the agronomy wasn't right. So that's in an agriculture sense, crops sense.

In cattle yards the same type of efficiencies are there, whether we can get a look at what's going on and make a permanent infrastructure change. That means every time we go to that cattle yard, we pick up that safety benefit. We pick up that efficiency benefit. The second part of that is then, of course, the hardest part and that's rejigging the people.

Shane Webcke: Would you agree with this observation? Because I was thinking about that today and knew that we'd be talking around technology and the rest of it. Then I started thinking about the great many things that technology has given us in terms of, you know all the jobs that we know and do, fencing, handling livestock, any number of things. Would you agree that each time that technology is employed in the name of efficiency, what goes hand in hand with that is it makes it safer? Just about everything I know that made a job quicker and more efficient, it also has made it safer. I can think of very few examples where the opposite is true.

Byron Wolff: I think that's absolutely true, because at the end of the day, the efficiency is gained, often in a cattle yard, by improving the, not only the infrastructure and the handling, but by reducing the amount of interactions between livestock and people where possible. So to become more efficient, we need, we use less people in the cattle yard. We can only do that through clever design. Clever design is able to happen, because we're able to make those observations, which the drone allows us to do. So by using the drones to get a clear picture on what's happening, improving the design, reducing the people, calmer people, calmer lifestyle, safer workplace.

Shane Webcke: Makes sense. What do you reckon comes next? So you've employed this technology and things are always evolving and changing and at Thompson Longhorn you're renowned for that. You always seem to be at the technological forefront of a lot of things with livestock handling. What's the next big innovation do you think?

Byron Wolff: I think the next thing that'll happen is we'll see the ability, and we've played with this already, but it's not really in the commercial space yet, but I think what we'll find is that we will be able to do 3D augmentations of design. So where we'd be able to use that data we've collected from the drone, to help us build a virtual model of your yard or your workspace.

And then we'll give you a set of glasses and you will walk through the yard and actually walk through it on your place, in your location and go, "Oh yeah, I can see how that fits in with my existing shearing shed," in your case.

Shane Webcke: Yes.

Byron Wolff: I see where the trucks will park or where they'll unload. I see where the stock will come in and you'll be able to get a really good feeling and appreciation of what that design would look like finished. And , I guess you'll be able to, or we as a supplier to the customer, we'll be able to say, this is how to work and this is what would work, and we need you to experience it.

Shane Webcke: Which is obviously critically important, because what we're talking about, is a capital expenditure.

Byron Wolff: Significant.

Shane Webcke: A major capital expenditure, which is important and justifiable, when you can truly understand that it makes your business better and safer.

Byron Wolff: That's right. Once you've got that ability to interact with this virtual thing, that's not even a stick of steel cut yet, but you can interact with that and work out what it's like, how it's like, whether you think it's right, you think it's wrong, whatever. That initial ability to work through those things before you invest, in you know what's a significant amount of money in a lot of cases, gives the people a lot of comfort around that as a purchasing decision and why that's a smart thing to do for their business.

Shane Webcke: So for a number of reasons in agriculture, for a long time, there was a reluctance. I don't think it was a reluctance to spend the money to improve these things, but the money just simply wasn't there. And a lot of agricultural producers, for want of a better description, had put up with what they've had, because that's all they could afford to have. Do you see a change in the way people are thinking, and obviously with buoyant cattle and sheep markets, a preparedness to make those capital investments, which obviously make the business more efficient but once again, we get back to the same thing, make it safer? Is there a, more of a willingness to do so for any number of reasons?

Byron Wolff: I definitely think there is. Of course it's underpinned by availability of finance or funding. But I think that generally the livestock handling systems on a property are now probably seen as much more a central and pivotal role to the business. I like to use the example of the Toyota Land Cruiser wagon. This car, brand new is worth a 100, 120 grand and a lot of our friends and clients, that's just the vehicle you need to do the job. That's because they know it's safe, they know it's got a lot of features about it that suits their family and looking after their family. The cattle yard or the sheep yard has traditionally just been a mechanism or a tool to get a job done. I think it's now becoming more obvious that this is a central point in their business, not just a tool to get a job done. And so we need to be able to take those people that we work with, or that are our family members, often, you’d know yourself, that your workforce is often your family members, the people you love and care about have got to go to work and be safe at work and come home and not spend all day in the cattle yards. I often tell people that I don't think any of our new cattle yards have ever been responsible for a divorce. We know—

Shane Webcke: Which is a true measure of the success.

Byron Wolff: It is.

Shane Webcke: If I can recall my mother and father interacting in our sheep yards many, many years ago, it was not a pleasant experience.

Byron Wolff: Absolutely. So you know that's the point. It's got to be a pleasant experience for operators and livestock, a safe experience for both. And obviously, you know we're much more focused now in Australia, in our production systems around animal welfare as well. We've got to make sure that it doesn't take weeks to get the job done and therefore we have poor animal husbandry, poor animal welfare. That it's simple, it's efficient, it's safe, and we can get that job done and get onto the other things, because these businesses are getting bigger and bigger or more and more complex. There's a lot of things that as a business owner, we have to get done in the cattle yard.

Shane Webcke: Just as a final question, I might just get your view on this, because it's a well-known fact how dangerous agriculture is. And the statistics prove that it is the most dangerous industry in this country. More people are hurt and, killed rather, and hurt in the pursuit of that than just about anything else. We both have grown up on farms and been around agriculture. That means that you will know someone being either badly hurt or killed as a result of that occupation.

What's your view on where it's headed in terms of people's, because the other thing that has contributed to that is a very poor attitude towards safety. It's very much been a secondary thing for a long, long time. Do you see a shift in that? Or is it something that still requires some attention?

Byron Wolff: I think it is shifting. I think it still requires plenty of attention. To be fair, I think originally it was seen as a measure that was being enforced through regulation, where I think there's been a change in attitudes and the way that that's been implemented and rolled out probably from a regulatory level. There's been a lot more effort going into making sure that programs around safety in the bush are being much more, I guess, cooperative or a shared approach. I think that gets a lot better result.

Definitely, definitely in the space that we work in, it's becoming a much more focal point, in the livestock handling. I think that's also driven partially because unfortunately there's not that many young people going back into the bush and we're seeing older and older users in the stockyards.

Shane Webcke: Well Byron, look, it's been an absolute pleasure to talk to you today. I've known you for some time. I know at the core of you, is a deep care for number one, agriculture, but also the business of livestock handling and you do that very, very well. So I do hope today has inspired you to think about whether you could use drones or such technology to help you work smarter, work safer and more productively. Once again, Byron, thanks for your time.

Byron Wolff: Thank you very much, Shane. It's been a pleasure to be here.

Shane Webcke: Please remember, before any work begins on your property, stop and consider the safer and smarter way to do your work. Exactly what we've been talking about here today. Make sure your staff also, most importantly, are trained on how to do that job properly. For more information and practical farm safety resources, visit worksafe.qld.gov.au.

You can also listen to this podcast.

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