Barn Surveillance: Know What’s Out There

A warning sign on your barn may stop some criminals.

Rarely a day goes by that we don’t hear of a property invasion or burglary occurring. According to the FBI, in 2010 there were more than 2.1 million burglaries resulting in more than $4.6 billion in property losses. Experts report that a burglary occurs once every 13 seconds. Horse farms are not immune from criminal behavior. An estimated 40,000 horses are stolen, in addition to millions of dollars of farm equipment and tack.

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With statistics like these, the necessity of a barn-surveillance system becomes obvious. But it’s not simple.

First, it’s important to understand that no two barns have exactly the same security surveillance system needs. The small backyard barn owner most likely does not have the same security issues that a large, multi-acre, multi-horse, equine operation may have.

Your insurance agent may be able to provide you with information concerning fire and liability issues, and you may even get a discount on your premium once the system is installed. While installing a system can be a do-it-yourself job, you still may find it wise to get estimates from an independent security professional who understands IT (Internet technology) and horse farms to perform a site assessment. Your local Cooperative Extension Service may be able to refer you to experts in your area.

For the technologically-challenged, the learning curve of understanding the workings of a surveillance system can seem like an Everest climb. And while an in-depth treatise on these devices is beyond the purview of this article, we’ll attempt to break down the basics for you.

Types of Systems

In the world of barn security, there are two basic types of surveillance systems: the older analog system and the newer IP-based system. Stay with us now as we describe them.

The old analog system is comprised of a video camera attached to a cable that is then directly connected to a DVR or a port on your computer where the camera images are converted into digital format and stored on a hard drive and viewed on a TV. Though analog systems have no routing and no networks, they do require extensive wiring to connect the parts.

Each camera that is installed requires its own cable that connects to each own port on the DVR. While analog systems are less expensive, their picture quality can’t compare to that of the newer IP-based systems. Image quality becomes especially important when you want to record a license plate number or when you are in a courtroom and needing to identify the person(s) who have broken into your barn.

Analog image resolution (which is measured in units known as TVLs) ranges from 320 TVLs (low quality) to a cap of 600 TVLs (the picture quality of a DVD).

In contrast, IP system resolution (which is measured in pixels) starts at 5 mega pixels and have virtually unlimited megapixel capability (the greater the number of megapixels, the more expensive the IP camera). To illustrate the difference, it’s estimated that to identify someone in a 1,000 square foot room, you would need four analog cameras to get the same quality high-definition image of one IP-camera in the same room. As a result of their poor performance, analog surveillance systems are now largely going the way of floppy disks.

The newer, more expensive IP-based systems capture images on a camera that immediately digitalizes them and then broadcasts them over your local area network (LAN). Using CAT 5 or CAT 6 cable, the image is then sent to a wireless access point and then onto a NVR (Network Video Recorder) where they are stored and where you can then view the images on your PC. These systems also have the capability for remote access that with the help of a modem, router and the internet, allows you to view what’s going on at your barn from remote computers and other devices such as an iPad, iPod or smart phone.

IP systems have additional advantages of being easier to install and offer the flexibility to change camera locations without having to run new cables. Furthermore, with their wireless capabilities, IP surveillance systems have proved useful in monitoring property with large tracts of land, a benefit which has an obvious farming application.


The camera you select will largely determine the quality of your surveillance system images. As we discussed above, IP megapixel cameras provide the best image quality. Surveillance systems cameras come in four basic shapes:

  1. Bullet cameras which are cylindrically-shaped and easily mounted and connected to the DVR,
  2. Dome cameras, which have a camera housed within a glass dome
  3. Box cameras which are a plastic box containing a camera (lenses sold separately) 
  4. Vandal-proof cameras which are dome-like cameras that can withstand a sledge hammer pounding. These are great for outside, but they require very secure mounting.

For barn purposes, we recommend the use of outdoor, weather-resistant cameras even for inside barn use. Additionally, because intruders are more likely to show up after dark, you should look for a camera with low-light and no-light infrared capability.

Today most cameras take color rather than black and white images. Color images are again handy to have for identification of vehicles and clothing worn by intruders. There are also cameras on the market that offer PTZ (pan, tilt and zoom) capabilities.

The number of cameras you need depends on the size of the area you want to watch. For a small barn (less than 2,000 sq. ft) a four-camera system may suffice. For a 3,000 square floor area, an 8-camera system is advisable. If the area to be monitored is more than 3,000 sq. ft., you may need a 16-camera system.

Additionally, when buying a camera, pay attention to its FPS (Frames Per Second) rating. An FPS of 30 will give you images that appear to be real time. Cheaper cameras with FPS ratings of 7.5 and less will give you choppy, interrupted video imaging.

Recording Devices

Your video surveillance system will come with a recording device that receives and archives the video images taken by your cameras. The old analog systems used DVRs; the newer IP systems use NVRs (Network Video Recorders). The size of the recording device you need is determined by two things: (1) how much video footage you wish to record and store, and (2) what video quality you want.

It’s estimated that five consecutive days of video recording using four cameras at a standard frame rate would require 50 GB of storage. The more time you are recording and the higher the resolution of the video, the more memory is taken up. If you don’t want to continuously record, your system can likely be set to record only at set times or when motion is detected. In addition to a motion detection feature, your surveillance system should also provide an alarm and cell-phone notification.

It’s wise to feed the video to an offsite storage spot, if possible. If not, be sure the recording unit is virtually impossible to find or the thieves will simply take that with them or destroy it.

Pasture fences that are difficult to tamper with may help protect your horse from theft.

Cost of Systems

As is so often the case, with surveillance systems you’re most likely going to get what you pay for. Many chain stores offer surveillance systems for home use. These packages generally include cameras (usually 4-8) and a recording device with the number of channels coinciding with the number of cameras. These packages can range in price from $200 to $1,200.

Some experts have expressed concerns that buyers of these systems may be getting lulled into a false sense of security and may find out that these systems lack not only quality in workmanship but also poor performance and durability.

A study from the University of Florida found that an average quality (the important word here being “quality”) system will cost between $700-$1,000 per camera with a low-end quality four-camera system running between $2,800-$4,000, according to Brian Levy, owner of Hero Security and Surveillance.

Other Applications

The use of video surveillance systems is gaining in popularity in the horse world. Stallwatch is a portable video surveillance system that allows remote viewing and recording of horses in their stalls at horse shows. It uses network-enabled wireless cameras to provide users with round-the-clock viewing and recording from personal computers and mobile 3-G devices. It is being used by Michael Matz, McLain Ward, the Kentucky Racing Commission and the New York State Racing Association and is practical and affordable.

Mare Stare LLC is a video surveillance service that reports to have hundreds of subscribers around the world. For a monthly fee, your video feed can be made available in various types of media formats to viewers around the world. For spectators awaiting the blessed event of a foal coming into the world, Mare Stare LLC can provide hours of exciting entertainment.

Whether it’s to protect your horses, your property and yourself from criminals or to monitor your horses which are sick, injured or foaling, video surveillance systems are proving to be a valuable and essential part of barn management. The benefits of having a system keeping a watchful eye on what’s out there can far outweigh the cost of this technology.

Bottom Line

While it may take something close to home to make you invest in one of these systems, be aware that not all salespeople understand horse barns. Avoid systems requiring that part of it requires a “heat box” of some type, and realize that a camera that allows two-way radio may also be useful in your barn.

A system that records is an absolute must, unless you have 24-hour manpower to monitor it. Even then, you lose out on the most powerful piece of evidence police can get: video footage.

Even though the system will be installed “in” the barn, it’s not what the industry considers “inside.” Barns are cold and dusty, both elements unfriendly to technology.

We would start our search with Stallwatch ( and Mare Stare ( because these systems are designed for the horse environment.

Of the mainstream options, Swann (, NightOwl ( and Lorex ( are top-rated security systems, many of which can be installed by the do-it-yourself person with computer experience.

Be wary of the products offered at discount stores, like warehouse clubs. As with all technology, these systems become outdated quickly and can end up on discount shelves. Before you purchase one, go to the manufacturer’s website to see if the system for sale is state-of-the-art or even being sold by the company anymore. Better yet, call the manufacturer directly.

If you’re going to invest, make the choice based on the system that fits your barn first, then factor in your budget issues. Old technology may fail just when you need it most.

Article by Susan Quinn, Esq., Contributing Writer.

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