Virtual fencing may herald tactical grazing

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Technology that controls cattle movement via GPS guidance will soon be trialled on-farm. The future hope is it may allow grain growers who have removed their fences to diversify into opportunity grazing

The collar contains a GPS chip so the animal and the fence can be geo-located. An audio cue and a mild electrical pulse are deployed if the cow moves too close to the fence. The device is powered by a small solar panel.

PHOTO: Ray King

Virtual fencing technology that uses a smartphone and global positioning system (GPS) guidance to control livestock movement is scheduled to be trialled soon in northern Australia.

Ray King, a research consultant with Dairy Australia, says northern beef producers will be given the first look at the system as a tool to keep cattle away from rivers and environmentally sensitive areas.

The technology, called eShepherd, works just like a fence but uses an audio cue rather than a visual cue to indicate the location of the invisible fence or boundary. A ‘fence’ is created using GPS data on a smartphone or tablet app and a specifically designed collar fitted to an animal detects when the animal has reached the ‘fence’.

As the animal moves closer to the ‘fence’, the collar emits an auditory cue. If the animal ignores the auditory cue, a mild electrical pulse is triggered.

“The animal learns within a couple of days and once it hears the audio cue it doesn’t go any further,” Mr King says.

“The electrical pulse is minor, about one-tenth of an electric fence shock, but the animal learns quickly not to approach the ‘fence’.”

Mr King says CSIRO piloted the technology more than 10 years ago and demonstrated it could keep cattle away from a river.

However, the equipment sat idle for several years until Australian agricultural technology company Agersens Pty Ltd purchased the patents from CSIRO.

In July 2016, the Australian Government announced $2.6 million in funding over four years, as part of its Rural Research and Development for Profit program, to Dairy Australia and other livestock R&D corporations to continue developing the technology.

The grant, through the Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, will enable researchers to evaluate the on-farm application of virtual fencing technology, demonstrate its implementation and extend its benefits across livestock industries and mixed farming.

The research project also includes $3.2 million in cash and in-kind support from Meat & Livestock Australia, Australian Wool Innovation, Australian Pork Limited, CSIRO, the University of Tasmania, the University of Sydney, the University of New England, the University of Melbourne and Agersens Pty Ltd.

GRDC Southern Panel member and South Australian mixed farmer Peter Kuhlmann is taking a keen interest in the technology because its potential has been rated highly by low-rainfall mixed farmers.

Mixed farming benefits

Mr Kuhlmann, who farms in a marginal cropping area near Ceduna on the western Eyre Peninsula, says the opportunities for increased profitability in mixed farming from virtual fencing include:

  • more even and intensive grazing of pasture paddocks;
  • zone grazing and associated weed management, which may reduce herbicide use;
  • protection of vulnerable soils such as sandy ridges where sheep like to camp;
  • a short-term or opportunity grazing or agistment option where fencing infrastructure has been removed or not maintained; and
  • improved opportunities to graze crops.

However, Mr Kuhlmann says sheep are more common in mixed farming areas than cattle and the development of technology for sheep, although underway, is further down the track.

Researchers from CSIRO and the University of New England are leading investigations into how virtual fencing can be used to manage sheep and Agersens has support from international animal management company Gallagher and other investors to further develop the collar, app, GPS system and solar power pack.

This research, which started in January, is looking at the duration and intensity of the audio and electrical cues needed to restrict and encourage sheep movement.

Estimated cost

Mr King says the collar and GPS system used for cattle is likely to cost about $100 per animal, plus installation.

“But this cost may be reduced if an eartag system is developed in the future, provided the animals respond in a similar way to the collar device,” he says. Another hurdle that needs to be overcome, according to Mr King, is improving the sensitivity of the GPS technology.

“For intensive grazing enterprises, the current sensitivity of the GPS, at two to five metres, is probably not sufficient,” he says.

“Intensive grazing enterprises would need to have a GPS sensitivity of 1m. But 2 to 5m is certainly good enough for keeping cattle away from waterways.”

More information:

Ray King
0412 322 047
r.h.king@bigpond.net.au

Dairy Australia

A short video showing how the eShepherd technology works can be viewed online.