Cameras key to cut sheep water runs

The West Australian
Mid West sheep producer Chris Patmore sees the 16 cameras he uses to monitor water troughs as integral to the 10,000 hectare farming operation he runs with wife, Robyn.
Camera IconMid West sheep producer Chris Patmore sees the 16 cameras he uses to monitor water troughs as integral to the 10,000 hectare farming operation he runs with wife, Robyn. Credit: Lara Ladyman

New technology deployed by one Mid West sheep enterprise is capturing more than just pretty pictures, it is driving efficiencies and delivering peace of mind.

Chris and Robyn Patmore run 4000 Merino ewes as well as Riverbend Poll Dorset and Border Leicester studs on 10,000ha.

The catch is, the stock are run mostly on summer stubble on five properties across four shires from the home farm in Eneabba to Morawa and Perenjori, which poses its own logistical challenges.

During summer one of the biggest chores used to be the water run. A seven-hour, 350km round trip repeated every few days.

“Ninety per cent of the time when you get to the troughs, there is nothing wrong and you’ve wasted a day and usually three-quarters of a tank of fuel,” Mr Patmore said.

But no longer. Five years ago, the Patmores invested in their first camera designed to monitor the water troughs.

Now, 15 cameras later, Mr Patmore can view a snapshot of each water point on his mobile phone.

As the sole labour unit on the farm, Mr Patmore said the value of the cameras went well beyond simply the dollars saved. For him, it’s about being more productive and being able to do other jobs. His role as Pastoralists and Graziers’ Association livestock committee chairman also means he spends a bit of time off farm.

The cameras enable him to still keep an eye on the watering points and even the dog, while he is away.

“It’s better peace of mind when you are away and better time management when you are at home,” he said. “I am still busy all the time and I still do nearly as many kilometres on the road but I am just more productive — I can be fencing or doing other things instead of just driving around checking troughs.

“Now I have the cameras I can check them six or eight times a day, just on my phone. It just takes a minute each time.

“I wouldn’t be able to run the sheep scattered around the different properties without the cameras.” - it is just a time factor. I wouldn’t farm without them now.”

The cameras are just part of the picture. Mr Patmore is adamant sheep don’t need to be hard work, with the right facilities.

To this end, he also has undercover work areas in the yards and a laneway system to make managing his stock easier.

Two different brands of cameras act as remote eyes watching whether the Patmores’ sheep are drinking or if there is any problems with the water.

They are the uSee remote monitoring camera and the Observant camera. Both units are solar powered and take time-lapse and on demand images.

Mr Patmore said as a guide, the cost of each camera was around $1500. There was an annual data cost of $200-$300 per camera.

Aside from that, ongoing costs were minimal – a new $25 battery every two to three years.

Before investing in the first camera, Mr Patmore did his homework on the different types.

There are a number of options available for the cameras such as video but apart from a rain gauge for one camera which is left at Perenjori for the winter, he has stuck with the basic model.

“There is also a multitude of companies selling tank level monitors or water flow monitors but I wanted the cameras to give me a visual picture,” Mr Patmore said.

Each farm is supplied by underground water, which is pumped and then gravity-fed into tanks.

The tanks have a level gauge that can be seen from a distance and these also come under the gaze of the cameras.

From its viewing position on a star picket, the camera’s line of sight takes in a trough in the foreground and tank in the background, capturing the water level in the trough and tank in one shot.

Given issues of network coverage in the bush, Mr Patmore also pointed out that the cameras did not need much of a mobile signal to send photos.

“You can have a camera 20km or 30km from a mobile phone tower and it still works fine,” he said.

“Even if you can’t make a phone call you can usually get a photo out of the camera because they each come with a broomstick aerial which gives a lot better coverage than a normal handheld phone.

“If you can’t get any signal you can use a satellite sim card – it works out a bit dearer but if you can’t get a Next G signal it is an option.”

Mr Patmore describes the camera system as “plug and play” but has made a few of his own modifications along the way.

“These cameras are set up to be mounted on a pole permanently but I have modified them to be portable, just with a thumbscrew, so they can be lifted off and you can throw them on the back seat of the ute and off you go,” he said. “When you shift a mob of sheep, you shift the camera with the sheep.”

Hence for the 16 mobs of sheep the Patmores run, there are 16 remote monitoring cameras.

And apart from the odd software and hardware problem, Mr Patmore has found the cameras pretty reliable. The camera wires, however, proved not to be cockie proof.

“Probably the biggest problem I have had is the cockatoos chewing the wires, so I have had to put conduit on the wires,” Mr Patmore explained.

“The cockatoos also learnt to turn the switches off so I had to put shrouds over the switches.”

With just the click of a button and a mobile phone the photos can be viewed from anywhere.

Mr Patmore said it was simply a case of logging into the website of whichever camera system was being used and entering a username and password.

His cameras are set to take photos every three hours but it is also possible to take a photo on demand.

“You can take as many photos as you like per day. You have complete control over them,” Mr Patmore said.

He explained that having a visual picture was the key.

“I like to be able to see the sheep are drinking – you can see them come in and have a drink,” he said.

“You will see some walking towards the trough and some walking away – it’s only a still picture.

“If you see a big mob of sheep bunched before a trough and they are still there a couple of hours later you know something is wrong - there is a turd in the trough or the water is all horrible and they are not drinking.

“I have been in Perth in one instance and I was watching the tank gauge go down and down but I figured I still had a day to get home and sort it out before it ran out of water.

“The good thing was I knew about it - I could handle it, whereas if I hadn’t known I would have arrived back to the farm two or three days later and the sheep would have been out of water and there would have been a big panic.

“So it’s peace of mind. You can get away for two or three days at a time and know that there is nothing wrong or if something does go wrong you can get something done about it.”

It didn’t take much to convince Mr Patmore that his photo album featuring water troughs, tanks and sheep was a worthwhile investment.

“I haven’t done the sums too closely because in my mind it was obvious the cameras would pay for themselves,” he said. “And they have well and truly.”

He added that the twenty-odd grand spent on the 15 cameras was not a lot of money compared with other on farm capital improvements.

Meanwhile, economist Peter Rowe has analysed the Patmores’ investment in cameras on behalf of the Royalty for Regions-supported Sheep Industry Business Innovation project, which is supporting the use of technology to make running sheep easier.

Mr Rowe concluded the cameras had enabled Mr Patmore to cut his water runs from 60 a year to around 18, saving 42 runs.

For an initial investment of $22,500 for 15 cameras, the savings in wages and fuel and vehicle operating costs including depreciation and interest savings represented $21,400 a year.

This assumes a labour cost of $46/hr including on costs, vehicle operating cost of 70c/kilometre and that the seven hour, twice weekly, 350km run is only done for the summer months.

Mr Rowe said the Net Present Value for the investment was $142,000, at a discount rate of 6 per cent over 10 years, while the payback period for the 15 cameras was two years.

Although the Patmores’ water run covers a few hundred kilometres, Mr Rowe said the distances travelled didn’t need to be anywhere near that for the camera technology to be profitable.

“Even if you travel 5km from the farm house to the back paddock and back, once a week during summer, the technology starts to pay for itself,” Mr Rowe said.

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