THE applications of virtual technology know no boundaries - even when it comes to boundaries themselves, including fencing.
A recent CSIRO trial of virtual fencing at a beef cattle farm at Tumbarumba on the western edge of the Snowy Mountains showed some of the benefits for farmers of the digital technology.
The trial was of a system called eShepherd, the first product from technology start-up company Agersens, and looked at how virtual fencing could train livestock to be confined or moved without using actual fences.
The system uses a smart phone, tablet or computer and GPS, wireless technologies and sensors to control the location of livestock.
It works by giving audio cues to cattle through solar-powered smart collars as they approach the "fence” and a small electric pulse if they continue on.
Over a short period of time, the cows learn to turn away when they hear the audio.
If they do go as far as receiving the pulse, it is significantly less than the shock of an electric fence.
John Guest is the manager of the trial property, Kaluah, at which a herd of angus cattle in a paddock had full access to a river and its adjoining land.
"I can see we would use it on our properties to reduce expensive fencing and keep stock out of areas that are difficult to muster or control. It's got the potential to make livestock handling simpler, cheaper and more efficient through so many ways,” he said.
Minimising any stress and ensuring welfare of the animals has been a key part of the research.
For the first week the cattle, with collars on, were able to roam freely in the paddock, cross the river and head into the bush. They were monitored and although they were new to the paddock, they got used to drinking at the river each day and grazing alongside it where the pasture is lusher.
eShepherd was then turned on, effectively blocking their access. Within a few hours all animals learned the presence of the virtual fence and chose not to enter the waterway zone. Only four cows "touched” the fence: they turned away and thanks to the herd effect, others followed.
"I was surprised how quickly the cattle learnt what the collars were about and after only a few zaps, they just turned away when they heard the audio cue,” John said.
Three days into the trial a few animals pushed through the fence but, unlike an electric fence, the system slowly "shepherded” them back to where they were meant to be.
After 11 days the virtual fence was removed and the animals rapidly returned to grazing along the waterway.
The CSIRO started working on virtual fencing in 2005 and have became world-leaders, inventing, developing and patenting this world-first, unique system. It has teamed up with Agersens to help get the technology out to farmers.
The company is CSIRO's exclusive, worldwide licensee and commercial partner in virtual fencing.
Agersens is also collaborating in New Zealand applying eShepherd to their conditions.
The aim of the trial was to test the effectiveness of keeping the cattle out of an environmentally sensitive area but it has many other uses.
"With the heifers, I look forward to the day I'm given an alert when they are in trouble and I won't have to spend hours checking them during calving time,” John said.
Gen Guest, from Murray Local land Services, said the system would prove more effective than conventional electric fencing on all stock, especially bulls and rogue animals.
"The potential management benefits are endless. From rotational grazing and separating bulls, to being able to graze different mobs on the same crop, or reducing weaning stress by slowly moving calves from their mothers while in the same paddock.”
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