Farming without the need for fences is a step closer with the launch of the first system developed in Australia. Future Farming takes a closer look.
The ability to fence, move and monitor livestock remotely, via a smartphone or similar, is becoming a reality, eliminating the need for physical fences.
An Australian company, AgerSens, is bringing the first commercial virtual fence system, eShepherd, to the market this year, following its development using intellectual property from the country’s largest research organisation.
Otherwise known as fenceless farming, the system developed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation consists of a GPS-enabled animal collar and an app. It allows the farmer to create any number of fences or boundaries and then get their livestock to move away from or stay within them.
This is achieved with the help of patented training software, which teaches the animal about the consequences of crossing or breaching a boundary, using an audible cue rather than the visual one associated with traditional fencing.
As professor Mark Rutter of Harper Adams University explains, the system replaces temporary electric fences with a virtual fence line, using a series of latitude and longitude co-ordinates. “It’s like a GPS-based electric fence,” he says. “The animal is fitted with a collar which can determine its position, deliver an acoustic warning and administer an electric stimulus.”
As such, when the animal approaches a virtual boundary, it receives a warning sound. If it reaches the virtual boundary, it gets a mild electric shock that causes discomfort. “In this way, the animals learn how to use the warning signals to avoid receiving a shock and stay within the designated area,” he adds. “As a result, they can be moved and managed, with the instructions being sent wirelessly to each animal’s collar.”
It should not be confused with geofencing, which uses GPS technology to locate something on a map, rather than control its behaviour or feeding pattern, he notes. Prof Rutter points out that there are ethical concerns over “shock collars” in the UK, so fenceless farming is less likely to be adopted where these are considered valid. But there is an alternative approach – positive reinforcement – which can be used to direct animal foraging.
“With positive reinforcement, auditory cues are used to direct animals towards a reward, such as fresh forage,” notes Prof Rutter. “The animals learn in the same way as they do with the collars, so after a few times the system works well.” He can foresee a system which uses both techniques, only resorting to negative reinforcement when the animal’s welfare is at risk.
“A variety of technologies to control animal access to pasture are becoming available,” he reports. “For best results, they need to be integrated into ‘smart’ grazing management systems. And it’s important to appreciate that they aren’t designed to replace the skills of an expert stockman.”
Fenceless farming offers much more than the chance to do away with the costs of permanent fencing, which can be prohibitive on larger units, says Ian Reilly, CEO and founder of AgerSens. “It can be used to automate grazing control, match the stocking rate to the amount of feed available and gather or muster animals at a slow and easy pace, reducing stress levels,” he explains.
“Remember too that in some areas, it is physically very difficult to do traditional fencing.” The virtual fence also has a place in environmental management, by preventing animals from entering waterways or sensitive areas and protecting other wildlife-friendly habitat.
“Don’t forget that it has safety advantages for many situations, as there is no wire for the livestock to get tangled up in, and no threat to wild animals or humans.” Typically, it takes 24-48 hours for stock to get used to the system and allow themselves to be guided by it, with trials showing that 98% of animals are contained.
“There’s interest in fenceless farming coming from all over the world,” confirms Mr Reilly. “It has the potential to make grazing management much more efficient, as well as to keep livestock safe.” The fact that the collars can also be used for data gathering is another exciting development – with the opportunity to collect information on animal behaviour and welfare.