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.
Dr David Henry, principal research scientist at the CSIRO who first started working on developing the technology in 2005 said "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.
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."
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.
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, agronomist Michael Moodie 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 every one 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."
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