An “eye in the sky” can be a big help when you need to locate missing cattle or check fences or water sources in a pasture.

Most ranchers can’t afford to hire a helicopter to check for missing cattle but might consider having their own personal “bird” to buzz around the place and look at anything from water troughs to activity in the calving pasture. A growing number of farmers and ranchers are utilizing drones with on-board cameras that take high-quality photos and video that can be used for many purposes, including advertising and marketing cattle.

John Walker, of the San Angelo Agrilife Research and Extension Center in San Angelo, Texas, is in an area where most ranchers have sheep and goats as well as cattle. If they are trapping predators and have snares along some of the fences, they can check trap lines or run a drone down the fence, without having to drive out there to look.

He says drones can also be useful to locate cattle in big pastures, to know where to start gathering. To check calving pens or pastures, you could send a drone out there.

“You can also preprogram drones to run a route, such as checking a fence. This is better than just trying to visually fly it in many circumstances,” Walker says.

When checking cattle, you can check some pastures more often or more closely, to know if there is something unusual, or a break in the fence, or the neighbor’s bull in with your cows. It increases your ability to monitor many things on the ranch. There are many potential uses, including using the drone as a herder to move cattle out of riparian areas.

A Chinese company called DJI makes most of the high-quality drones on the market today.

“They have several models, and you can program drones to run a specified route. There are software programs you can put on your computer to plan a route for the drone. Even if you are looking for cattle in a big pasture, you’d want to have the route planned so you can send the drone on that route and all you have to do is concentrate on watching the screen to see where the cattle are. Otherwise you are distracted between two tasks — flying the drone and watching the screen,” he says.

There are legal concerns, Walker says.

“Legally, you are supposed to have an unaided line of sight with the drone; it shouldn’t go over the horizon out of your sight. Even if you are in flat country, it might be hard to see the drone a quarter-mile away. Most of them have a range of several miles,” he says. “Also, there is some question about whether you need to register your drone if you are within a certain distance of an airport, but it was recently ruled that model aircraft, like DJI sells, do not need to be registered with FAA.”

Batteries are a major concern.

“The biggest limitation is battery life. The upper end is about 30 minutes,” Walker says. “Wind will cut that down; you might only get 80 percent of the advertised battery life. The faster you go, the more battery it takes, compared with if you fly it slowly.”

It takes a little practice to learn how to fly a drone if you are not already used to doing video games.

“With the standard drone, the left joystick controls altitude and direction the drone is facing (yaw). The right one controls speed and moving left or right (roll),” he says. “It takes a little practice to get good at flying it.”

After you master a cheap one, you could always give it to your child or grandchild as a toy when you get a better one.

For some ranchers, drones can save time and miles.

“Here in Texas, hunting income is important for many ranches, and they do deer surveys with helicopters,” Walker says. “You can do the same with a drone, less expensively.”

Heather Smith Thomas and her husband raise beef cattle and horses on a ranch in the mountains near Salmon. To contact her or order her books — which include “Horse Tales,” “Cow Tales” and “Ranch Tales” — call 208-756-2841 or email hsmiththomas@centurytel.net.