Cow collar technology trialled by farmers in bid to help protect Great Barrier Reef 

You might be more accustomed to seeing collars on cats and dogs, but collars for cows are the latest technology some farmers are trialling to reduce the impact on the Great Barrier Reef.

Central Queensland graziers Ainsley and Rob McArthur have just finished a trial of 450 collars on their herd, designed to create virtual fences to control grazing patterns.

« We can certainly see the possibility and the potential and a role for it in our business, definitely, » Ms McArthur said.

The solar-powered collars are controlled via a base station and through an algorithm-based app.

Jason Chaffey chief executive of Agersens, the company that designed the technology, said it was a way to further automate on farms.

« Virtual fencing allows you to control the position and movement of animals automatically, from your PC or tablet, and move the animals using our cloud-based software, » Mr Chaffey said.

The technology uses an intelligent neckband, which transmits data to a web app.(Supplied: Agersens)
While cattle collar technology has been used for GPS tracking and behaviour monitoring, virtual fences are yet to be common practice in agriculture.

While it sounds comparable to an invisible fence for dogs, Mr Chaffey says it uses learning mechanisms to train the animals on an audio cue.

« When an animal approaches the border of the virtual paddock, the neckband will produce an audio warning, and if the animal continues towards the virtual fence, the neckband will produce a mild electrical pulse, » he said.

The system uses an intelligent neckband that tracks the position and behaviour to the animal within the virtual paddock, as designed by a web app.

The McArthurs’s cattle at St Lawrence had the neckbands put on in the yards and Ms McArthur said the cattle took to the collars quickly.

« They shook their head and wondered what this strange thing was, but within hours they were let out of the yards and they were back grazing, » she said.

Great Barrier Reef Foundation chief executive Anna Marsden said it could see potential in the world-first, with Agersens receiving a $335,000 grant towards water quality improvement.

« Everything we’re doing with water quality must and should have farmers at the centre of it because they are the biggest environmentalists in Australia right now, » Ms Marsden said.

« We’re really hoping to learn and refine this technique now it’s out and working with the cattle, and the farmers will give really valuable feedback. »

The McArthurs rotationally grazed their cattle, moving the animals between pastures regularly to prevent overgrazing and keeping them from easily eroded areas such as creekbanks.

« The potential of this had us excited because we weren’t limited by where a physical fence could go, » Ms McArthur said.

« Our creek systems are already fenced out but that’s determined by geography.

« This allowed us to graze closer to the creek, in the nooks and crannies, where if you didn’t you’d end up with old feed and weed pressure. »

While it was still early days, Ms Marsden said they hoped they could learn a lot from the trials.

« We hope that this will be something that all cattle farmers could look at, who have properties that go up near stream banks and gullies that lead onto the Great Barrier Reef, » she said.

« Because we just have to look at everything we can do to try to keep all of that land and sediment on land and not wash onto the reef. »

The collars have been in development since 2014, and Mr Chaffey said the plan was for the technology to be commercially available as of next year.

While Ms McArthur said it would not take the place of all physical fences just yet, they would like to see how expensive it would be compared to fencing.

« The commercial viability of it is what we need to have on the table now, » she said.

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