BEEF Daily

How Drones May Change Food Production, From Pasture To Plate


An investigative journalist is raising money to fly drones over feedlots. What are the implications for beef producers, and how can the industry protect its privacy while also being transparent to consumers?

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are an up-and-coming technology that one day may deliver to our doorsteps everything from televisions to groceries. In fact, Amazon is seeking clearance for same-day delivery by UAV of purchases to customers. Who knows, perhaps one day our home-delivery pizzas will come via UAV.

The applications for UAVs are boundless. Of course, UAVs are best known for their uses in defense, law enforcement and security, but UAVs are also commonly used in search-and-rescue missions, maritime patrol, monitoring installations like pipelines or watching for wildfires. Because they can fly and hover discreetly, UAVs are great for film work and sports photography. Even in agriculture, there’s research underway on the use of UAVs to monitor crops and pasture/rangeland conditions.

Yes, UAV technology is impressive stuff. Best of all it’s inexpensive. Where a trained pilot and thousands of dollars would be needed to perform such surveillance by airplane, a few hundred dollars can put a UAV in anyone’s hands. What does that kind of capability and affordability mean for the privacy concerns of all citizens, including livestock producers? And don’t think such applications aren’t already being considered. In fact, UAVs have been used by anti-hunting activists to harrass hunters.


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According to an article entitled, “How Drones Will Change The Way You Eat,” by Mary Beth Albright for The National Geographic, “On situational awareness, drones will improve the welfare of animals we eat and use for food production. Investigative journalist Will Potter has been long frustrated by state ‘ag gag’ laws criminalizing the use of false pretenses to access a farm for purposes not authorized by the owner (such as photographing animal cruelty). In some cases, the photographer is subject to greater punishment than the perpetrator of animal cruelty. So Potter got creative with a Kickstarter campaign to buy drones and photography equipment to fly over and photograph factory farms and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), notorious for close quarters and animals living in inches of their own waste.

drone technology“Titled ‘Drone on the Farm,’ the campaign to combine drone photography with investigative reporting raised about $75,000—more than twice its original goal—for materials and legal counsel. The rules are still murky about the relatively new area of unmanned flight and photography, so legal challenges are practically inevitable.

“And state ag-gag laws’ constitutionality is being tested in federal court as violations of the First Amendment and federal whistleblower statutes. Whether one agrees with Potter’s goal of exposing factory farms, the general privacy ramifications of allowing contested aerial photography, particularly when drones can cost as little as a few hundred dollars—are troubling.”

I imagine Potter will learn quickly enough that privacy is still protected here in the U.S. Meaning, while we can take photographs freely on public property, flying over someone’s home and place of business to take photographs is illegal. But could a UAV equipped with a high-definition camera park over public ground and film onto private property? There are many privacy questions that will need to be addressed.

This kind of “big brother” sneakiness makes me nervous. That’s not because I’m a beef producer, but because I don’t like the idea as a private citizen of having “eyes in the sky” potentially watching every move I make.

Of course, as beef producers, we must acknowledge and understand that society demands more from us today. They want more transparency regarding how their food is produced. What consumers are hearing and reading from some activist sources is far from the reality of family-owned beef operations. Chances are, if a consumer actually toured one of these businesses, they would be impressed rather than horrified by the conditions.

That’s why it’s important that we as producers start these conversations with consumers. Let’s work to share the story ourselves and bridge this important gap. Let’s start sharing our own stories on social media and help the real story of beef production go viral.

What do you think about drones flying over feedlots? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of or the Penton Farm Progress Group.


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Discuss this Blog Entry 9

on Aug 4, 2014

Airspace rights in US.:
"In non congested, sparsely populated areas, or over bodies of water, the pilot must remain at least 500 feet (150 m) from any person, vehicle, vessel, or structure"

Skeet shooting anybody?

on Aug 4, 2014

It is unreasonable to gather information in the sky. It should be against the law to do this. But I can hit a 1" target at 50 yards. I would imagine that pesky pigeons that poop all over my house and damage the roof will come down easily with a 22.

NSA is already there (not verified)
on Aug 5, 2014

The NSA has already blown away your assertion that privacy is protected in this country, but you are welcome to cling to that illusion if you like. In any case, it will be very interesting to see what comes of this project.

TexasMan (not verified)
on Aug 5, 2014

I think it is an great idea. Public perception of animal agriculture will not benefit from backlash, which is nearly incriminating in itself, as it makes one appear as though there is something to hide. There is too much at stake here (public health; public concern over animal treatment) to object to non-invasive examination. Responsible ranchers may feel vindicated in the end.

r2d2 droid (not verified)
on Aug 5, 2014

If the industry is suppose to be transparent & claim not to be doing anythingg wrong. Then is the industry & it's sympathizers trying to hide? Fighting this drone concept would mean, y'all are a little shady & doing illegal procedures. For the animals on these concentration camp farms, for the environment, & for your health... GO VEGAN!!!

TimWebb (not verified)
on Aug 5, 2014

Given the history of beef and poultry production I feel this is a welcome addition to monitor our food. Granted, there are some producers who run legitimate and lawful businesses and they should have nothing to fear or to hide. It is those that are making the most noise against the use of drones and pushing Ag-Gag laws through who are attempting to skirt around existing laws and place the beef and poultry producers outside the law most likely because they are doing something the general public would not and should not accept.

JB (not verified)
on Aug 11, 2014

In the most perfect world you can still find what ever you are looking for. The most humane of cattle ranches still run into problems that can be misinterpreted by an ignorant fool as abuse. You can give an ignorant person information about a situation and their perception will alter the out come of the situation. I don't believe any person that has never had the opportunity to work on a ranch of some kind has any rights to open there mouth about how an animal should be raised or shouldn't be raised. Because their own lack of understanding the situation truly does just make them ignorant.

JoJo (not verified)
on Aug 29, 2014

You are so right. I have grown up around cattle all my life and know that certain things can look like abuse to the non-cattleman that really is okay. Many years ago, a neighbor put a rubber boot (keeps medicine on the injury and keeps bad bacteria away from it) on an animal to treat a foot problem. Someone passing by on the road saw it and called the police. A veterinary had put the boot on the animal.

JB (not verified)
on Aug 11, 2014

To add one other thing. How many of you get even just a little nervous when a police officer is following you around town?

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What's BEEF Daily?

BEEF Daily Blog is produced by rancher Amanda Radke, one of the U.S. beef industry’s top social media “agvocates.”


Amanda Radke

Amanda Radke is a fifth generation rancher from Mitchell, S.D., who has dedicated her career to serving as a voice for the nation’s beef producers. A 2009 graduate of South Dakota State...

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