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Barn camera systems save calves

Heather Smith Thomas for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 December 2021
Camera in the barn

Some ranchers utilize camera systems to monitor cows, mares, goats or sheep during birthing. This saves time and labor, and they don’t have to go outdoors as often in severely cold weather to check animals.

Jim and Kirsten Wright have a seedstock operation near Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, with registered Red Angus and black Angus. “We’ve had our camera system three years. The one in the barn has a range of 360 degrees, giving full view of the barn. We have the same type of camera outside with night vision,” Jim says.

“We have three groups in front of our barn when we start calving – bred heifers ready for their first calves, 2-year-olds that will be having their second calves and mature cows. We can see everything going on in that yard,” he explains.

He and his wife both work off-farm full time, so in addition to being able to view the images on their TV, they have the cameras hooked up to Wi-Fi and can see the images on their cell phones. “This is the only way both of us can work off farm and still calve out cows. Our farm is only 20 minutes from town, so if I need to run home, I can do that. If there’s a cow calving outside, I can be home by the time it’s born, and it won’t be outside in the cold very long.”

Watching a camera

The system paid for itself the first week it was installed. Jim says, “A cow had a breech calf, and I was watching her on camera. Otherwise, I might have left her too long and would have lost the calf before deciding to check her.” She seemed to be still in early labor, but she was an older cow and should have been progressing. Watching her with the camera, he realized she had a problem.

Carmen and Gerry Ogilvie have a commercial cow-calf operation in northwestern Saskatchewan, with 200 cows. They start calving mid-February. “It’s just the two of us, but we have a grown son who helps during calving,” says Carmen.

They got their first camera eight years ago. “We started with an outdoor camera with hand-held zoom we control from inside the house with a joy stick. Infrared imaging helps at night. We do a night feeding program, so more of the cows calve during the day when they are locked in a pen where they have bedding. At 6 p.m., we open a gate into the feed pen where there’s room for all of them to eat. In a perfect world, they would go back to the bedding pen to calve, but that doesn’t always happen,” she says.

“The outdoor camera helps us catch any surprises, so we’re less apt to lose a calf in cold weather. That’s the main reason we chose the outdoor one, thinking that was all we needed,” Carmen says.

Camera in the outdoor pen

The next year, they put a camera in the barn. The outdoor camera has a 25-power zoom and the smaller one in the barn has a 10-power zoom. “If we have a cow in the barn calving, we can watch her from the house and not have to keep going out there, opening the barn door and disrupting the cows. Every time you open the door, they look around to see what’s going on and may get up and delay calving. It’s better to not disturb them, if possible,” she explains. They now have a camera in each barn.

“The cameras make life easier. If Gerry goes out to check something, I can watch from here. If I see him having trouble getting a cow in, I can go help him. There’s also the safety aspect; if he’s having any kind of trouble, I’d know, or if I’m out checking cows at night, he could see if I need help,” Carmen says.

Carmen Willmore, an extension educator for the University of Idaho, raises goats and uses barn cameras during kidding. “We’ve had our cameras three years. We purchased them through Amazon and downloaded an app on our phones with a Wi-Fi extender to have enough service from the house to the barn and kidding pens,” she says.

“We can observe the does without walking through and upsetting them. We also put cameras in our loafing shed, attaching them to 1-foot sections of two-by-fours, with zip ties to attach them to the rafters rather than permanently, so we can move them around. At one point, we used an extra set of kidding pens and needed another camera; we took one out of the other barn to have more coverage.”

Camera on the barn

They can make sure newborns aren’t getting stepped on, and that they are bonding and suckling. “In pens where we have pregnant does, we can see if one goes off by herself, or is lying down straining or has a water bag. We watch them through labor without disturbing them, unless we see a problem,” Carmen says.

It’s helpful to continually monitor and know when labor starts and when to check on one. “If we notice one starting labor, we make a point to check her half an hour later and not have to keep running out there.”

One of the handiest aspects is knowing when labor actually starts. “You can buy expensive cameras that constantly record, like a surveillance camera with a tape you can rewind and check something you might have missed. Ours don’t do that, but they have a motion detector and will turn on and record for 15 or 20 seconds. If a doe is in labor, she is usually moving around enough to trip the motion detector.”

cameras on a pole

It records snippets of movement with a time stamp. “You can check that – if you haven’t been watching – and see how long she’s been in labor. It might be two hours and you need to get out there and help her, or maybe she just started 10 minutes ago.”

These were inexpensive models but very durable. “They need a power source, and we just use extension cords. One of our barns doesn’t have electricity, so we simply run an extension cord with a surge protector in the middle.” Each camera comes with a 5-foot cord so you can plug it in, and it might take a long extension cord for some locations.

These are stationary cameras, but they have a wide angle of vision. If you put them in various corners, they can cover most of the area you need to view without many blind spots. “We bought four our first year, and it was only 100 dollars for a set of two. Now we have eight,” Carmen says. “Once the app is on your phone, you can watch it from anywhere. If something needs attention when we’re gone, we call our neighbor.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: The camera in the barn can show what’s happening in any barn stall.

PHOTO 2: This image on a TV screen in the house shows what is happening in the barn, and whether the pairs are bonding or the calf is able to nurse. Photos provided by Julie Demman.

PHOTO 3: The outdoor pen can be viewed in the house on a TV screen.

PHOTO 4 & 5: An outdoor camera can be mounted on the barn at a high spot, or on a pole above the yard light. Photos by Jim Wright.

Heather Smith Thomas is a freelance writer based in Idaho.

OTHER BENEFITS

Jim and Kristen Wright use their camera during breeding season when heat detecting for A.I. “If I’m at work, I can periodically check cows, looking at my phone, and catch the ones that start to show heat. Conception rates on our embryo transfers have improved because we typically put most of our embryos in on natural heats,” Jim says.

With the camera, he can catch a cow that only rides once or twice – that might otherwise be missed. “I am more apt to see it on my phone than if I was going out to the field a few times a day to observe cows. With both of us working full time, this was a good investment. The camera system was expensive, but now we couldn’t be without it,” he says. 

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