MULLICA HILL, N.J. — Beef farmers, do you know where your cows are right now?
With the help of satellite tracking devices, that’s a question that could be easier to answer than ever.
“Our coverage is global, so anywhere on the planet that the cattle are, we can cover it,” said Chris Gray, vice president of emerging technologies and business development at satellite provider Globalstar.
Gray spoke during the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association’s East Coast Producer’s Forum on July 7 at the Gloucester County 4-H Fairgrounds.
For ranchers with sprawling, remote holdings, satellite trackers have obvious appeal.
Australian ranches are so large that owners often manage them by helicopter. Being able to monitor a herd or a water tank remotely could save them a lot of money.
In Norway, where collisions with trains are a major cause of loss for reindeer herds, satellite trackers have saved herders millions of dollars.
The system alerts trains and gives them time to slow down when herds are near the tracks.
Satellites have even given Australia a clever way to streamline the time-consuming work of finding feral camels.
The animals have gotten out of control after being imported to aid exploration in the 1800s, according to the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions.
The Australians tag a camel and release it into the bush.
Once the highly social creature links up with a herd of its brethren, the hunters cull all of the camels except for the tagged one.
The so-called Judas camel then leads the hunters to a new herd.
“There’s a whole different raft of ideas and things that I’d never even heard of or thought of,” Gray said.
Simply tracking a herd’s location probably holds little appeal in the eastern United States, where farms are relatively small, and frequent pasture rotations give producers a chance to see their stock.
More interesting might be the trackers’ ability to work with heat-detection sensors and to pick up sudden movements that could indicate predator trouble.
The tags could also help find stolen cattle.
Globalstar has gotten some requests to make the tracker resemble a traditional ear tag so that a cattle thief would be less apt to remove it.
The devices would be even less conspicuous if they were implanted like a microchip, but that won’t work because trackers need a clear view of the sky to connect with the satellite, Gray said.
While there are plenty of reasons to know where cattle are, it can be just as valuable to record where they haven’t been.
New Zealand plans to cull 150,000 cattle to fight a disease outbreak.
The number could have been far lower if farmers adjacent to the infected site had been able to show that their cattle had not had contact with their neighbors, Gray said.
Satellite trackers can also be used to monitor farm equipment — to make sure workers are actually moving and doing their jobs, or to send a distress call in an emergency.
Long-range radio can serve some of those purposes, but it also requires base stations and other equipment around the farm, Gray said.
Globalstar is relatively new to agriculture, and Gray is finding that farmers stand the company’s normal business strategy on its head.
Sales volumes in the satellite sector are generally low compared to, say, consumer electronics.
But considering there are millions of cattle that could be tagged worldwide, the sales potential is off the charts.
“For satellite, if you sell like 10,000 of a unit, we have a song-and-dance routine in the office,” Gray said.
The company generally offers its services by subscription, like cell phone service, but that model would be too costly to interest farmers.
Globalstar is now looking at a one-time fee covering both hardware and airtime.
That price tag is currently between $50 and $75, but Gray hopes to cut that by half to make it more palatable.
“Satellite is normally seen as an expensive exercise,” he said.
Gray said he’s open to making the tags reusable.
The current unit’s usefulness is limited by the battery’s five-year life span, but a collar version in development would accommodate a larger battery and thus last longer.
Livestock move in herds, so farmers might not have to put trackers on all of their cattle.
Some producers might choose to tag just their high-value breeding stock.
In any case, an eye in the sky might be a tool to manage cattle smarter.