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Cattle Management Takes to the Air

28 April 2016

Improved efficiency and enhanced animal welfare lie behind new developing technology for cattle farmers. Saving labour on routine daily livestock management is a key goal, writes John Wilkes.

Satellite controlled grazing by means of a smart phone and infrared monitoring of animal health and available forage using drones is just around the corner.

Agersens in Melbourne, Australia promotes virtual “Fenceless Farming” with their eShepherd concept. This system eliminates the need to manually move electric fencing or establish costly permanent stock barriers.

Across millions of acres of open land worldwide, traditional fence methods are either not physically possible or feasible. eShepherd aims to make efficient controlled grazing management achievable.

Boundaries are enforced by electrical prompts meted out from transponders on individual plastic cattle collars. The signal comes from a farm base station fed by GPS tracking. Grazing zones can be enabled and controlled by an app on a smart phone, tablet or PC.

Initially, the herd is taught to recognise the invisible boundary; the process taking approximately 2 days. The animal learns to avoid crossing fence lines by an electric shock preceded by an audible signal from the transponder.

eShepherd’s satellite based technology creates the virtual fencing and, if needed, can be moved very slowly during a 24-hour period for more efficient intake of fresh forage.

Over grazing can be managed by moving animals away from select areas. This affords opportunity to increase stocking density, improve land management and ultimately improve profitability.

Company founder Ian Reilly explained: “We’re very much focused on developing a product to meet a market need.”

Mr Reilly continued: “We’re currently seed funded and we’re the beneficiary of an A$75,000 grant from the Victoria government. They like the idea that eShepherd can protect water courses and rivers from random mass cattle access.”

Ian Reilly, Agersens founder and CEO

Agersens has worked closely with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). This research body has been instrumental in developing the animal friendly software that trains cattle to stay within designated zones.

Animals lying or standing near a virtual boundary are unaffected. Cattle readying to move over fence lines receive an audible pre-warning then finite electrical stimulus to herd them back. Resting on the wrong side or heading back incurs no penalty; only moving in the wrong direction leads to action.

Ian Reilly added: “With welfare paramount we want to avoid anxiety. The transponder sound becomes associated with moving in a direction that the animal shouldn’t go.”

He added: “Animals not learning might need culling as electric shocking is finite, not continuous. But we’ve not found any yet to resist.” Another important benefit to real-time tracking is awareness of an animal’s lack of movement for long periods of time indicating possible illness or calving.

The first large-scale trial of eShepherd’s technology starts soon on a CSIRO research farm. The projected initial cost for the collar and transponder is USD $50-70 with large volume orders significantly decreasing the cost. There will also be an annual fee for database software and updates.

Longevity is affected by the life of the transponder. Projection is for a five (5) year minimum lifespan for a transponder’s solar trickle charge battery. The batteries are integral and non-replaceable. The strap life is dependent upon animal behavior.

Mr Reilly added: “Experience of oestrus monitoring collars in the dairy industry shows that some cows are harder on theirs than others and rub more often. However, mislaid transponders can be located via satellite.”

Drones provide additional aerial management opportunities. Though current Federal Aviation Authority regulations hamper wide rollout in the US, commercial companies are tentatively exploring applications for the livestock sector.

General monitoring of livestock with conventional drone cameras isn’t new, however, more detailed cattle health diagnostics are feasible with infrared thermal cameras to indicate body temperature.

Internal body temperature can be calibrated from infrared radiation by means of molecular movement within an object and its resistance at the surface. Increased flow of white blood cells to a stressed area generates heat and is detected by the camera.

Infrared Cameras Inc. (ICI), Beaumont, Texas is at the forefront of US infrared camera technology. Prompted by the Ebola outbreak, the company’s equipment is now widely employed to monitor public health.

Currently ICI’s veterinary infrared equipment is being utilised by farmers as a health diagnostic tool. One customer uses ICI’s equipment to monitor rodeo cattle. Animals are regularly imaged to screen for internal health issues arising from activities in the arena.

David Strahan, International Sales Manager commentated: “Infrared imaging non-invasively indentifies fever, fractures, strains, sources of inflammation and even hoof issues in horses from excessive heat emitted from that particular area of the body. Lower than normal animal body temperature can also indicate health problems.”

Photographs of cattle via conventional and infrared systems

Gary Forister, ICI Senior Design Engineer sees a role for drone-mounted infrared. One ICI customer used this equipment to count livestock. Mr Forister commented: “Several thermal images were taken and used to create a larger mosaic of the whole area to assess animal numbers. It wasn’t perfect, but it has possibilities.”

Mr Forister added: “This same customer used drone mounted infrared to monitor cattle body heat. He identified animals with higher or lower temperature needing closer inspection and actually used the drone to physically herd the animal to a confined area. We thought this pretty cool.”

Another feature of infrared imaging technology pioneered in the cropping sector allows for forage health and mass to be evaluated. This constitutes a useful management tool for monitored grazing.

A drone carrying sophisticated cameras – conventional and thermal infrared plus a sensor control module weighs only 300gm. With this light payload increased flight time, upwards of 35 minutes is possible for a medium-size 4kg carrying capacity drone.

David Strahan concluded: “Providing the equipment is rugged, durable enough and has appreciable flight duration, anything is now possible.”

Though in its infancy, wide-ranging aerial surveillance technology continues to develop and is certain to advance remote cattle management. The sky, theoretically, is no longer the limit.

John Wilkes

John Wilkes
Freelance journalist

John Wilkes is a former UK sheep and beef producer now living in Washington DC. His experience in both the UK and US gives him a unique perspective on livestock and food production.

Nowadays he writes and consults about livestock and agriculture. He also hosts a broadcast radio programme called The Whole Shebang on Heritage Radio Network from Brooklyn, New York.

John is a board member of The Livestock Conservancy in the US and a member of The American Sheep Industry Association.


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