MOUNT VERNON, Mo. —
Jim McCann hasn’t taught his grandchildren how to drive a tractor yet, but they may already be able to teach him how to operate a piece of equipment that could be in farming’s future.
McCann, of Lawrence County, is president of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association and was among more than 100 farmers who attended the 90th annual Lawrence County Soils and Crops Conference on Thursday.
Along with the usual topics — efficiently feeding hay, using cover crops, etc. — was a discussion on how unmanned airplanes, sometimes called drones, could benefit agriculture. It was led by Bill Wiebold, who when he is not piloting the small planes is the state soybean specialist with University of Missouri Extension.
Wiebold brought two planes, discussed how they operate and the legalities that come with using them.
“I really think there’s a lot of opportunity with these things we’re going to talk about,” said Wiebold, who also said at first that he was hesitant to call them “drones” because of possible negative connotations.
Wiebold said each farmer would have their own reasons for wanting to use a drone, which costs about $1,000 plus $300 for a camera.
McCann, who has about 500 head of cattle, said they would be a “wonderful time saver,” especially during inclement weather.
“If you’re checking cattle, it would be much simpler and a whole lot nicer,” he said. “If you’re checking cows that are calving, it would cut your time by probably 75 percent.”
Wiebold presented a video that was taken from one of the drones as it hovered over a crop field at about 175 feet. The footage was slightly shaky, Wiebold said, because there was a 20 mph wind gust.
“It’s kind of fun to do, unless it crashes,” Wiebold said, adding he crashed the drone shortly after taking the video.
Brent Drury, 23, of Strafford, said he’ll probably buy a drone within a couple weeks.
“I’d be using it for checking livestock in the field,” said Drury, who grows wheat, soybeans and alfalfa at J&K Farms east of Springfield. He also has a 300-acre cattle farm in that area.
“I thought it was very reasonable as far as how much it costs,” he said.
Part of the discussion included legal and privacy issues that come with owning and operating a drone.
The Federal Aviation Administration considers drone users to be hobbyists, and the drones are not approved for commercial use. Drones can be flown under 700 feet, and the FAA considers that height to be non-navigational, meaning it will not interfere with airplanes, Wiebold said. However, there are different rules for those who live close to airports.
Farmers can fly over their own property, Wiebold said, and outlined a few other rules: Operators must stay away from populated areas; flying near spectators is not allowed until the operator knows how to fly; and the drone cannot go higher than 400 feet if it is within three miles of an airport.