Colin Palmer no longer fits the image of the sleep-deprived, anxiety-ridden beef producer when calving starts — despite having more than double the cattle he did a decade ago.
Instead, he is losing fewer calves, spending less money on gas and steps off his farm near Saskatoon more lightly in spring, since he can pull up a live stream of his cattle any time he wants.
Palmer is one of many livestock producers who have installed “cow cams,” technology that allows him to tag difficult births before they become critical, get calves out of the elements quicker and avoid the constant anxiety and late-night slogs to the calving pen so familiar to anyone who grew up raising livestock.
Why it matters: Cattle surveillance systems can make stock farms more labour efficient, decrease calf losses and improve farmyard security, and Manitoba livestock specialists say they expect to see much more of them.
Those stresses came to a head on the Palmer farm around 2010. Both Palmer and his wife were holding jobs off farm, as well as managing their 40-head herd. Palmer had actually spent past calving seasons sleeping in a shed beside the calving pen (prior to the family moving to their current house on the yard site), while also running back and forth between the yard and his job at the University of Saskatchewan during the day. In one memorable calving season, Palmer estimates he spent about $800 in gas thanks to the constant trips.
“We had lots of cold spring weather,” he said. “We were getting up every two hours at night to go out and check cows calving and then I was leaving to work 27 kilometres away.”
Palmer soon decided that something had to change. Security cameras were not totally novel — he knew fellow producers already using the technology — but Palmer had always assumed they would be cost prohibitive.
Eventually, however, the strain won out. Palmer and his wife invested in a $1,700 fixed-view camera system with two cameras.
The issues of that early system, however, soon became apparent. The system allowed them to watch from their house, but did not allow the versatility that Palmer was looking for, and while it set a watch over small areas, multiple cameras were needed to view a larger area since the cameras could not move, and the camera could not adjust to accidental position shifts from wind, impacting image focus. The family used the system for only a single year before they were once again in the market for cameras.
Palmer ended up finding a surveillance firm in Saskatoon, and going in for a consultation. Eight months later, he bought his first camera system capable of tilting, panning and zooming for about $1,900.
That upgraded system has become key in his calving.
“Before we had cameras, we’d have, sometimes, a set of twins. (The cow) would own one and the other would be walking around and then she wouldn’t want to take it. It had been half a day, so we’d have lots of trouble with that twin,” he said. “Now we catch them really early.”
The farm loses “very few calves,” outside of the occasional birth defect or stillbirth and the cameras have helped him cut down on frozen ears and tails, he added, “especially in the early part of the calving season.”
Cows that start calving outside are usually allowed to finish outside, something Palmer says avoids prolonging a birth if a calving cow is disturbed, but now the humans are in place to swoop in and get the pair out of the elements once the cow finishes bonding with the calf.
He can now read ear tags from up to 140 feet away, allowing him to keep running tabs on which cows have calved, and the cameras allow his family to time a birth, and to check on a cow if half an hour has passed with no progression in calving.
Palmer estimates that they lose fewer calves now than before adding cameras, despite increasing the herd to over 80 head.
According to the 2014 Western Canadian Cow-Calf Productivity Survey, about 16 per cent of calves that died in the first day after birth did so because of weather. Another 29 per cent of those one-day-old deaths were linked to accident or predator attack, both things that could be reduced by having a constant eye in the calving pen.
A followup survey in 2017 found that calving difficulties were the worst offender for calf deaths. About 37 per cent of all calf losses from heifers and 21 per cent of losses from cows were due to calving difficulties. Weather accounted for about four per cent of heifer-born calf losses and seven per cent of lost calves born to cows.
Palmer’s reasons echo many farmers closer to home.
Mathew Kulbacki, a producer near Eden, sells cattle surveillance systems through his company, Kulbacki Ag Supply, as well as using them on his own farm. Both his outdoor calving pen and barn are monitored, on top of a high-zoom camera overlooking his winter pasture.
“It’s literally to catch somebody that’s maybe in the early stages of calving in the pasture where we can’t calve in January,” Kulbacki said.
This past season, the cameras captured newborns walking in the pasture in those winter temperatures, something Kulbacki called, “a pretty sickening feeling, but I’d rather catch it at 2 a.m. with the camera than find at 8:30 (a.m.) when we’re feeding and it’s a dead calf.”
Eye spy at MBFI
The interest in cameras comes as no surprise to Manitoba livestock specialist Ray Bittner. In fact, he expects to see the technology on every beef operation over 100 cattle in the near future.
Bittner was among the experts testing mobile camera technology at Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiatives north of Brandon this year. The remote camera, which extended up from a set of solar panels on wheels in one of the applied research farm’s paddocks, transmitted video to the farm’s main shed about a mile away, via a line-of-sight transmitter. The system’s 12-volt solar panel and golf cart battery system lasts six days without sunlight before failing, Bittner said, and is outfitted with a foldable transmission and camera array for transport.
“The solar system has been really dependable,” Bittner said. “It’s probably equally dependable to hydroelectricity.”
The installed camera can rotate 360 degrees, as well as zoom in to read ear tags from 100 yards, according to research staff. The setup cost the research farm about $3,000, including a video recorder and up to seven days’ worth of video storage.
A growing trend
Kulbacki says he is already seeing the rise in demand forecasted by Bittner. His customers have included all demographics, including the non-technologically inclined or older producers who have needed extensive help setting up and accessing the system.
But his advertising, or lack thereof, is perhaps more telling.
“We never really have to sell these products,” his wife, Jewel Kulbacki said. “People phone us and they just want them.”
The demand for these systems has seen a marked uptick since they started selling them two years ago, the couple notes.
Meanwhile, the technology itself is still improving. There are better cameras now, Palmer notes, while he is considering an upgrade to a video recording system much like what is installed at MBFI. Kulbacki, also, has upgraded to a Wi-Fi system that allows him to easily tack on cameras, while the cameras he sells have options such as infrared or daylight settings, depending on if an area is well lighted or in a pasture away from the yard.
The experts are usually the best way to sort through that landscape for anyone looking for their first cameras, both Palmer and Bittner say, while Kulbacki notes that he commonly takes a trip to a customer’s farmyard to better tailor the system for their needs.
“Don’t just order an off-the-shelf model,” Bittner advised. “Talk to the sales rep and ask a lot of questions, because you can overbuy, and you can very easily underbuy.”