Farming without fencing, the future of farming

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In the outback of Western Australia, ranchers raise cattle on land stretching as far as the eye can see, with red earth, droughts, cyclones and iron ore trains more common than the human interaction.

The great distances can make it difficult to monitor livestock, but a new trial of virtual fence technology has the potential to shake up the industry.

The cattle collar was herd tested at Rio Tinto’s Hamersley station, located just outside of Tom Price in the Pilbara.

The mining giant has partnered with the University of Western Australia and Meat and Livestock Australia to see the technology roll out.

The end goal: no fences, smarter agriculture and lots of profits.

Cattle yards at Hamersley Station.(ABC: Robert Koenig-Luck)

The dream

As one of Australia’s largest mining companies, Rio Tinto invests in innovations that could generate profits – and that’s where the idea of ​​the cattle collar was started.

The company operates six pastoral leases across the Pilbara and can transport over 18,000 head of cattle in a good year.

It is also home to some of its largest iron ore mines on the same land.

Rio Tinto, director of Pastoral Sim Mathwin, said the collar was a potential solution to the conundrum of managing farm and mining operations simultaneously.

“This is going to be incorporated into a new strategy on how we run our stations, which is based on holistic management,” said Mr. Mathwin.

“It will also prevent livestock from accessing Rio Tinto infrastructure, rail lines, etc.

Virtual fence technology makes it possible to contain or move livestock without the use of physical fences.

In the Pilbara, a fence costs about $ 4,000 per kilometer: $ 2,000 for labor and $ 2,000 for materials.

The average pastoral lease in Pilbara covers 200,000 hectares, and fences are regularly damaged by natural disasters.

Mr. Mathwin said virtual fencing could be a game-changer.

“I believe if the necklaces can deliver, as we hope, it will change the pastoral industry.”

A cattle collar resting on a ute plateau.
Vence is a virtual fencing technology company that has developed its own collar.(ABC: Robert Koenig-Luck)

Necklace

So far, the trial has proven successful with 100 head of cattle wearing collars, each costing around $ 40. The next step is to increase the number of trials to 500 and possibly to monitor the entire breeding herd.

The collar is a lightweight GPS device, which is attached to the neck of cattle.

It is programmed to receive signals from a remote tower that guides animals away from a virtual fence line drawn on a computer or smartphone.

Station manager Evan Casey said he was originally skeptical, but that quickly changed.

“In about 48 hours the cattle had adapted,” said Mr. Casey. “We test absolutely everything with animals, stress levels, markings, welfare.

If the animals approach a virtual boundary, the collar alerts the cattle with a warning sound.

If they cross it, they receive a slight electric shock, less than with an electric fence.

Evan casey
Station manager Evan Casey monitors the weight of cattle in the stockyards. (ABC: Robert Koenig-Luck)

Mr Casey said one of the main benefits is managing a herd from a distance, rather than walking more than 1,000 kilometers per week around the pens.

“It’s a way to check the cattle every day and see where they are, see what they’re doing, see how they move, see how your bulls interact with your breeding cows, if they are working. , if they are not, ”said Mr. Casey.

“The potential is pretty endless.”

Scientists have a field day

The technology has allowed scientists to also measure the nutritional value of the landscape and how livestock eat it, which in turn should put money back into farmers’ pockets.

Phil Vercoe, an animal scientist and project leader at the University of Western Australia, said it was a groundbreaking trial.

“This allows pastoralists to understand the most profitable parts of the landscape and possibly modify their management to improve the efficiency with which they use it.

“You can also take care of the health of the landscape.

“Land spelling works a lot from the ground up and if you can rest areas of land, especially in a really timely fashion, that will be the key to an efficient production system.”

A man standing by a fence with cattle in the background.
Phil Vercoe, zoologist at the University of Western Australia, oversaw the deployment of the cattle collars.(ABC Pilbara: James Liveris)

However, one of the biggest concerns is animal welfare.

All electrical devices used on livestock are covered by state government animal cruelty legislation.

Queensland and Tasmania are the only states that freely allow the sale and use of Virtual Fencing technology.

The Hamersley Station research trial has been approved by an Animal Welfare and Ethics Committee.

Drone footage of an agricultural landscape.
Hamersley Station is located near Tom Price in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.( ABC: Robert Koenig-Luck)

Professor Vercoe said the end goal of the research was to provide a reason to change state laws and allow necklaces to become commercially available for the pastoral industry in WA.

“We definitely accept that there is an ethical interest in the community and that is what people and consumers are really looking for,” Professor Vercoe said.

“The collars will meet modern expectations of animal welfare standards supported by the community.”


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