Drones driving transformation at Matador Cattle Company

June 13, 2018

John Douglas Russell, or J.D. for short, knows his way around a ranch. As a fifth-generation cattleman with Matador Cattle Company, he was practically born in the saddle. Even today, it’s where he’s most comfortable, relying on the instincts and abilities of his horse to manage 2,000 head of cattle over 10,000 acres in the Flint Hills, just outside Eureka, Kansas.

But for as much as J.D. and his team of cowboys respect and continue many of the traditions that haven’t changed in 100 years, one decision they didn’t have to wrangle with was the call to experiment with drone technology at Spring Creek Ranch – one of Matador’s cattle ranches under J.D.’s charge. And this adoption of 21st century technology has already demonstrated its worth on the range.

“With the drones, if you have a concern about a cow, you can fly over to check it out,” said J.D., “versus having to drive 15 to 20 miles to get a horse and come back only to find the cow has moved. Then you’ve got to go track it down again, so I see a lot of potential in drones for us.”

The idea to use drones for ranching might at first seem out of place, but it’s consistent with Koch’s efforts to integrate new technologies into all facets of company business, from manufacturing assembly lines all the way down to ranching.

“I’ve had the privilege of multiple learning opportunities by working with this company,” said J.D. “The things this team has been able to experience and go out and try from an entrepreneurial perspective have really been beneficial. Being able to take and find new ways to innovate with technology … it really gets you thinking, ‘what if?’”

Having this technology in hand – and up in the air – is helping inspire new uses for the equipment. J.D. foresees being able to eventually scout ahead and survey rough terrain, identify and mitigate invasive species, safely oversee grass fires and even remotely scan RFID ear tags to monitor cattle health.

As drone cameras have evolved, so have the possibilities for operators. Of particular value to ranchers now is the ability to attach infrared cameras to spot stray animals using their heat signatures. For J.D., the time savings alone makes the prospect of one day using infrared technology at Spring Creek Ranch very exciting.

“If you go prowling around looking for strays, you can kill a week in a hurry,” he said. “Or, you could shoot a drone up in the air and, in a matter of hours, cover a large percentage of the ranch. That’s key, because those cattle are going to keep moving.”

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The adoption of new technology has been a constant for J.D. since he began working for Matador Cattle Company. He attributes the growth of the company’s cattle breeding operation to experimentation with embryo transfer, DNA testing and artificial insemination. But, aside from the future potential of drones on the ranch, there’s one technological advancement he still considers to be one of the most critical – the smartphone.

“I don’t know how we ever did without them,” said J.D. “Just the instant communication and amount of data that’s at your fingertips. Before, if we had a problem with an animal, it might take three or four days to get an answer from a veterinarian. Now, you can research symptoms on your phone and have a pretty good idea of what the problem is before talking with the veterinarian.”

Yet, even modern technology has its limitations out on the ranch. Citing one of his college professors, J.D. states, “Models don’t make decisions, managers do.” In other words, informed decisions are always going to require human input.

“There are some things we’ll continue to do traditionally that we all hold dear, but to be able to be productive and innovate and experiment has been very rewarding over the years.”