24 Mar

Sheep and cattle could be enclosed by virtual fences

Having the power to move and monitor animals from a smartphone might soon be a reality for farmers.

Virtual fences are a potential game-changing technology for farmers, giving them the ability to move and contain cattle digitally without the use of a physical fence.

The technology was first developed by the CSIRO more than 10 years ago but it is only now, with the cost of component parts now relatively affordable, that it looks tantalisingly close to commercialisation.

“It’s actually fairly imminent in terms of having a commercial product available,” says Dr David Henry, principal research scientist at the CSIRO who first started working on developing the technology in 2005, initially as wearable collars for cattle.

The technology tracked how cattle responded to “cues and controls” administered through the collar typically as either an audible alarm or a small electric shock (less than an electric fence).

“The early research showed that we could technically keep animals out of environmentally sensitive areas, we could keep them confined to particular parts of the paddock for optimising pasture, we could keep bulls apart to stop them fighting, and we showed that we can also move them from point A to point B using these autonomous collars.”

Back then, the collars were too costly to bring to market but now the technology has finally caught up, he says. The advent of smart phone technology combined with more efficient batteries and storage – has now made it possible to manufacture at a price that is attractive, he says.

“Farmers can’t put collars and ear tags on their cattle for $1000 each, they have to be more like $50 each and that is now a reality,” he says.

AG-TECH START-UP AGERSENS

CSIRO has licensed the commercial patents with ag-tech start-up Agersens who will start testing the first commercial “fenceless farming” prototypes in the next four weeks, according to managing director, Ian Reilly.

“The growth in mobile device technology and the internet of things has really made this possible,” says Reilly. “The company hopes to launch the first product to market in the next 12 months, pending a $2 million capital raising and a crowdfunding drive on Indiegogo.

“No one else in the world has done this yet but we think the time is right.”

Professor David Lamb, a precision agriculture expert who heads up the University of New England’s Precision Agriculture Research Group, believes virtual fencing has the potential to drive huge productivity gains in the agriculture sector.

He predicts that every one of the country’s 28 million-head cattle herd may one day be fitted with ear tags to remotely map and control their grazing behaviour.

“It is an enormous greenfield opportunity because technology hasn’t yet appeared in the livestock sector like this, not really,” he says. “GPS has given us the ability to know when an animal is approaching a digital line in the sand. By applying a stimulus to the animal you can contain an animal in a paddock by simply having lines drawn on a computer screen. You don’t need a physical fence.”

In Victoria’s Mallee district, farmers have experimented with GPS-technology fitted to sheep and cattle via collars, collating extensive data on their movement and grazing through paddocks.

Data collected to date, clearly demonstrates the productivity gains that flow to farmers when they have the ability to control exactly where sheep graze, says agronomist Michael Moodie, and agronomist with farming systems group Mallee Sustainable Farming.

TEST RUN ON 25 SHEEP

“What we found was that around 25 per cent of the paddock remained untouched,” he explains of their test run on 25 sheep within a flock of 200. “When you start to run figures on whether there was a way of doing something else with that pasture – cut hay or something like that – we realised we could have made an extra $4000 profit off that one paddock. If there was technology to allow us to control where those sheep grazed, well, because they only grazed 75 per cent of that paddock that means we could have carried an extra 65 sheep in that paddock – an extra 25 per cent increase in production.”

Improved pasture management isn’t the only productivity boon afforded by virtual fences. By cutting out the cost of building and maintaining fences altogether, Australian farmers stand to save billions, Professor Lamb predicts.

“It costs a farmer $5000 a kilometre to put up and maintain a fence and every 20 years they have to put up a new one, plus ongoing repairs. There is, I would estimate, 10 million kilometres of fencing in Australia – so that’s a $50 billion asset that needs to be constantly maintained and replaced. Imagine freeing up that sort of money in the agriculture industry for farmers to invest in other things – improving their land conditions, you name it,” says Professor Lamb.

Electronically controlling the movement of cattle could drastically improve pasture management by reducing the areas that are either overgrazed or undergrazed within the one paddock, says Mr. Moodie.

The technology would be particularly useful to farmers in low-rainfall farming regions such as the Mallee, the Eyre Peninsula and western NSW cropping areas, he believes, or farms where broadacre cropping and livestock co-exist:

“Once-upon-a-time, paddocks in these areas were 50 to 100 acres and now they’re 250 to 500 acres. Basically, fences have been pulled out and that makes it hard to manage sheep and they have basically been reduced in number, or expelled from the farm completely.”

Farmers often struggle to get the most out of mixed-purpose pastures, or those used for both grazing and cropping, says Moodie. The latter requires large paddocks and highly-scalable operations which is often at odds with the smaller paddock sizes suited to grazing. Smaller paddock sizes can chew into costs by taking up extra time at sowing and harvesting.

“If technology such as virtual fencing was to arrive that would allow grazing management on these really big paddocks would mean grazing could be closely matched to production potential. Farmers would be able to utilise the pasture in the paddock without the risk of environmental damage and erosion or wastage.”

Effective virtual fencing, if available as a low-cost technology, therefore, has the potential to significantly change the business case for mixed-purpose farming, he says.

“As we found this year, if we had this technology we could make an extra $4000 profit from one 200-acre paddock. These farms that we’re dealing with are more like 10,000 acres. Not everyone of those paddocks will be grazed every year but even if it were 10 per cent of the farm – you get an idea we’re talking significant dollars.”

Read more: http://www.afr.com/news/special-reports/sheep-and-cattle-could-be-enclosed-by-virtual-fences-20160307-gnch4a#ixzz43Cxnv3be
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