A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Science

The herd instinct may become a virtual reality

Will farmers have to keep herding their livestock until the cows come home? Technology may mean they can do it remotely. Danielle O’Neal reports.

Words by Danielle O’Neal
 

Cows see the world very differently to humans. With 330-degree, panoramic vision, sight is their dominant sense. So while containing cows with an invisible fence might seem a far-fetched idea, this technology is about to revolutionise Australian agriculture.

Using a digital collar on the beast, and an app on their mobile phones, farmers can fence, move and watch livestock remotely, even from their home computer. The GPS enabled, digital herding collar primarily uses sound to train cattle to “hear” the fence, and avoid the virtual boundary.

It’s all based off an algorithm. If the cow approaches the virtual fence line, the collar emits a beeping sound to tell it to stop or change direction. If the animal ignores the audio cue and continues towards the fence, the collar delivers a single, aversive electric pulse which the manufacturer describes as having less kick than an electric fence.

The idea was developed almost a decade ago by Australia’s leading government agency for scientific research, CSIRO, and is now being trialled on farms in Queensland, New South Wales and Tasmania, as part of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources Rural Research and Development for Profit Program.

The $6 million “virtual herding” project gives just a glimpse into the growing industry of agricultural technologies, which is predicted to be worth more than $100 billion by 2030. It’s a field exploding with possibilities, but with price-tags and question marks around animal welfare that still pose a challenge to farmers weighing risk and benefit.

While farm fences might seem just a ubiquitous part of the rural landscape, they cost thousands of dollar per kilometre to erect, and require frequent upkeep in response to damage caused by storms and bushfires, as well as trapped wildlife. Removing the need for physical fencing means labour and money can be redirected into other farm operations.

But reduced fencing costs is not the only dividend being spruiked to farmers. “Because virtual fences can be moved very easily, we can also slowly move the cattle,” says Ian Reilly, the CEO of Agersens, the company that bought the technology from CSIRO and has brought it into commercial production.

At the moment, mustering of cattle on very large properties is often done with helicopters or gyrocopters, which is not without its risks for cattle and pilots. The death of mustering pilot Brent Acton in Northwest Queensland when his helicopter hit power lines on his way to a herding job was one of five recorded aerial mustering accidents in Australia last year.

Virtual cattle management promises a more convenient and safer option to aerial mustering, says Reilly. “Another problem for farmers is they don’t actually know how many cattle they have.

“If they want to send some of them to market, but don’t know how many they’ve got because they’ve been out for nine months, one of the questions they ask is how many roadtrains to order? If they were collared, we could tell them that on a daily basis.

“And because each animal wears a collar, we include sensors on the collar that monitor their movements, to identify when they’re grazing, resting, ruminating, or if their ill.”

There’s palpable excitement within the livestock industry about the possibilities of data-driven farming, allowing farmers to make decisions that optimise productivity, perhaps instantly, with the assistance of farm-running programs.

These gadgets monitor the cows’ movements, keeping them within the virtual fence. Photo credit: Danielle O’Neal.

These gadgets monitor the cows’ movements, keeping them within the virtual fence. Photo credit: Danielle O’Neal.

Projects like this already exist. FutureDairy, a fully automated milking system for cows, has been operating commercially since 2012. With dairy cows, in effect, milking themselves, the FutureDairy livestock go days, even weeks, without being touched by the farmer.

But as with any seismic technological shift, there are profound implications for life on and off the farm. With the adoption of more agricultural technologies, future farmers will need to become more tech savvy; to write computer code and analyse data trends. Demand for physical muscle will diminish. These shifts in labour demand are already reshaping the character of rural communities.

Rural Australia is struggling to keep population, with local sporting clubs strained to maintain numbers and small business closing up shop. And there are dystopian concerns that more digitised, even gamified, farming would see humans vanishing from the bush.

But Nikki Reichelt, a sub-program leader of the virtual herding project and a social scientist at Melbourne University, has a more optimistic take. She says the incorporation of agricultural technologies can actually attract people to the livestock industry.

Reichelt has conducted four focus groups involving 31 livestock farmers from Queensland and Victoria about how virtual herding technology will transition into on-farm practice. She says the farmers she has had discussions with are excited at the prospect of using these technologies, because they symbolise a contemporary approach to farming.

When Reichelt asked the focus group farmers about the impacts on farm labour, several farmers anticipated that virtual herding technology could help attract young farmers, graduates, and experienced, former farmers to the livestock industry.

“Yes [virtual herding] is going to save on particular labour costs in the farming system, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to lose people by taking on this technology,” she says.

“One of the things that the farmers also want with this technology is for it to integrate with other technologies, such as grazing management systems and mapping of agricultural land classes. So ideally over time, this collar will be able to integrate all of these other digital and sensory systems into a comprehensive system so that the farmer will be able to allocate the highest quality pastures, matched with the needs of their herd at specific points in time, and therefore increase the chances of producing healthy livestock.

“I definitely think this technology is going to be a game changer, because it’s allowing farmers to make decisions with so many more data-inputs, so they can potentially make better decisions.”

But there are still a range of considerations for on-farm adoption of virtual herding technologies. The most formidable being that the technology is banned in Victoria, Western Australia, and South Australia. The issue is the collar. In Victoria, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Regulations 2008 prohibits the use of collars that impart an electric shock on an animal, with the exception of cats and dogs.

Agersens says the collar doesn’t pose any harm or welfare risk to the animals. The collar does not deliver uncontrolled electrical pulses, and does not deliver any stimuli (audio or electrical) to an animal running or in distress. This is why the product is not recommended for properties that back onto main roads of railway lines.

“If you get entangled in an electric fence, it just keeps shocking you. Whereas with this system that can’t happen.”

“We’ve got an intelligent shepherd in the collar saying hang on, this animal is in distress or there is something wrong, so let’s just leave it alone,” says Reilly.

However, RSPCA Australia is opposed to the use of any electronically activated device which delivers an electric shock on animals, as it is an aversive training technique. Melina Tensen, the Senior Scientific Officer (Farm Animals) at RSPCA Australia, says more research is needed before a change in legislation would be supported.

“Our concern is that this technology is said to be an improvement for animal wellbeing and so far, as far as we’re concerned, there is not enough evidence of that,” says Tensen.

“There are all sorts of questions around the impact of the technology on animal welfare; what happens to those animals that never learn? because there may be a small number of animals that never really understand the link between the sound and the shock.

“And also potentially longer term concerns for animals who have these collars. Is there any impact on their mental state? For example, are they always going to be anxious as to when the sound is going to come? As soon as they move are they expecting a sound and a shock, or do they just move about casually in the paddock as it would appear?”

In Queensland, NSW and Tasmania – the states where the virtual herding trial is taking place – the law differentiates between domestic and cattle animals. Agersens is working with the state government to make the same legislative change in Victoria, although no official timeline to introduce the bill to parliament has been set.

The virtual herding project hopes to deliver a 10 to 20 per cent increase in productivity and profitability for Australian livestock enterprises by 2020. Aside from being able to legally service Victoria’s 2 million beef cattle, achieving this target will require that the price tag is affordable for farmers.

Agersens is producing around 250 virtual herding collars each week, by hand, in it’s Camberwell office. Reilly says the company expects to take production offshore within the next nine months so that supply can meet demand, however this will not reduce price, which sits at approximately $200 per collar.

But the upfront costs of this technology run much higher. Virtual herding also requires the installation of the base station and an annual software subscription fee, which would be about $1600 for typical Australian dairy farm.

“Farmers are really excited by these opportunities, but they’re coming to them in many different shapes and forms, and they’ve got to integrate that into a farm system.” says Professor Ruth Nettle, leader of Melbourne University’s Rural Innovation Research Group.

It’s not just about the costs. A general challenge with investing in agricultural technologies is that farmers have a degree of uncertainty about what will actually work on their farm, says Nettle.

“Farmers may hold concerns that the technology will not be suitable for their own farming context, or it may become obsolete in a short period of time, or that they don’t have the capability and capacity to implement the digital technology in a way that would give them the most benefits.

“In the end, a farmer needs to have a clear value proposition that spells out a return on investment.”

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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