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Extension Education | May/June 2024

Using Technology to Monitor Water on the Ranch


Thomas Aquino, Graduate Research Associate

Yijie Xiong, Nebraska Extension Specialist, Precision Livestock Management

University of NE - Lincoln, UNL Beef



Water is often a limiting resource when considering both animal and grazing management. Checking water levels can often account for a considerable proportion of time and labor costs, especially when water sources are few and far between or during extreme weather events. Producers who are looking to minimize time spent checking water may consider investing in one of many modern water monitoring solutions. Many options are available based on needs, product features, budget, and connectivity concerns. For simplicity’s sake, we will start with the most basic options and work our way up.


Trail/Cellular Cameras

This is probably one of the most basic and affordable options for water monitoring. Many trail cameras are available online or at sporting goods stores. You might even have an extra one floating around from last hunting season. Place these trail cameras overlooking water sources to take photos and send them to a mobile phone at preset times each day, or when motion is detected by the camera. This is also a great option for security purposes around equipment and facilities. However these cameras require adequate cellular service to send photos.


Barn Owl Tech

Barn Owl tech offers a variety of cameras that work with cellular connections. Originally designed as security cameras, they can capture photos and videos that can be sent to a mobile phone. In addition to battery power, Barn Owl cameras offer solar backup and optional zoom for higher-resolution images. Users pay for cellular data (provided through Barn Owl) with a “pay as you go” option that is based on data usage/images per month. Although not designed specifically for water tank monitoring, with proper setup users can monitor the approximate water level and quality in real-time via a cloud-based application.

Pros: Lower cost (range from $400 to $700 per camera); can be easily moved between areas; solar backup.

Cons: Monitoring is limited to what can be seen in camera’s field of view.


Drones

Drones are becoming more popular among farmers and ranchers thanks to their flexibility and ability to be used for various tasks. For checking water in places that are hard to reach by foot or vehicles, drones can be easily flown to those areas to check water levels and visual conditions. Drones also serve as a tool to check on animals in those areas without risking getting stuck. Some drones have extended flight times (30+ minutes) and a flight radius of 2 miles or more. Manufacturers such as DJI, Ryze Tech, and Autel Robotics offer drones for personal usage in a wide range of sizes, weights, and prices that can range from under $100 to thousands of dollars. When purchasing drones, make sure to look at compliance requirements with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Regulations. Drones are the only option we discuss that needs a physical operator and may require FAA compliance.

Pros: Can choose from different manufacturers, sizes, and prices; Flexibility to do multiple tasks; flying makes it easier to access hard-to-reach areas.

Cons: Requires a learning curve associated with flying drones; requires a physical operator; risks associated with drone crashing and damaging; flying is limited to certain distances from the operator; flying time is limited to battery capacity.



Stand-Alone Water Monitoring Products

This group of products is sold and used exclusively for monitoring and/or managing water levels. Devices consist of a base station with an antenna, battery, and the “brains” of the system. The sensor is usually attached to a cable placed into the tank/trough/pond. Some companies also offer extended cables for use in larger or deeper tanks. These products come as part of a package that will include a monitoring device and an app or software that can be used with a smartphone/tablet/computer. In addition to the initial one-time cost of the package, an annual/monthly subscription fee is often required for using the product via cell/satellite service and visualizing water level information.


Ranchbot Water Level Monitor

Ranchbot Monitoring Solutions offers a variety of water-monitoring/management options with different price points and capabilities. Their water level monitors not only measure water levels but can send alerts to your cell or emails in “near real-time” when there is a sudden change in water level. They also have a remote/automatic pump control to keep water tanks filled to a consistent level and an automatic rain gauge to track rainfall.


Gallagher Satellite Water Monitoring System

Marketed as a “liquid” monitoring system, Gallagher’s product can monitor several types of liquid, including water, fertilizer, or fuel. Relying on micro-satellite communication, this water-monitoring system can be utilized for large farms or remote properties where cellular or Wi-Fi coverage is weak or unavailable. It also can add multiple recipients to notifications about changes in water levels.


Lonestar Tracking

Lonestar tracking offers a water tank monitoring system that can operate with either satellite or cellular technology. Users can be frequently updated from four (satellite option) or 24 measurements (cellular option) in a day and can be notified when the water level is low.

Pros: Purposely designed for livestock water level monitoring, various options based on price and connectivity, product-specific customer service, global coverage using either satellite or cellular connection.

Cons: Higher initial costs, semi-permanent: not as easy to move to different locations, requires a monthly/annual subscription for connectivity service and data platform; may operate using a long-lasting battery, so, the product lifespan is subject to battery life (can range from 2 years to 10 years).


Integrated Water Monitoring Products

The following group of products is integrated into another system/software/application. This means these products need to be used with existing livestock monitoring products from the parent company/system. These water monitoring products can be purchased from the parent company and may require an additional subscription fee for data. If you are already using one of these systems, integrating water monitoring can be simple.


701X xWatSen

701X Autonomous Rancher offers GPS “smart” ear tags that track individual cattle movements and provide record-keeping and data management through an app-based user interface. The xWatSen monitors water level and temperature and is connected to the xBase to send notifications to the app. In addition to low water level notifications, the xWatSen device can also notify the users in cases of overflow events and allow the users to customize their preferred water temperature range and receive alerts when it is outside of the range. The 701X system is reliant on cellular service.


mOOvement

mOOvement tracking, based in Australia, offers a few sensing solutions, such as location tracking, ultrasonic and pressure sensors for livestock operations. Their location tracking system uses either GPS or Bluetooth ear tags to track individual animal locations. The manufacturer now also offers an ultrasonic water sensor for water level monitoring based on the type of water source (troughs and tanks vs. creeks and ponds). This system is reliant on LoRa (long-range) radio antennas that are connected back to an internet or cellular system.

Pros: Seamless integration to parent system, devices, and data platform.

Cons: Operate as an add-on device to the parent system and require existing parent system infrastructure.


Final Thoughts

There are several options for monitoring water levels, and the number of products available in each space continues to expand. When considering solutions to implement on your operations, keep these factors in mind:

Cost: How much are you willing to spend? How much time and fuel will this save?

Environment: What are the typical weather conditions in your area? Do you need more rugged systems for extreme weather events?

Connectivity: What kind of connectivity is required for this product to work? Do you have it covered in your area?

Flexibility: Will this be on a permanent tank, or will it need to be moved? If so, how frequently?


If you have any questions about options for water monitoring or have an experience with some of these products/solutions you would like to share, please reach out to your local extension educators.


Disclaimer: The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension does not promote any one product or company. All information in this article is provided unbiasedly to meet producers’ inquiries and needs. There are several other products available in the water monitoring space. The products listed in this article serve only as examples.


Courtesy University of Nebraska - Lincoln, UNL Beef.


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